Victory in Ohio?

Image by Manny Becerra.

The Teamsters claimed a major victory in the Ohio Governor’s race with the reelection of Governor Mike DeWine, a conservative Republican, during the recent midterm elections. Its celebration on the union’s social media channels should raise concerns among labor reformers and socialists, who’ve been looking for a new direction from the Teamsters after the disastrous Hoffa years.

DeWine had wide support from the Republican establishment, and was also endorsed by former President Donald Trump, despite their past differences. While DeWine did receive the endorsement of a couple state-wide buildings trade unions, along with the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police and the Trump-supporting National Border Patrol Council (the union for federal Border Patrol Agents), it’s rare that a major conservative politician, such as DeWine, is endorsed by the Teamsters.

So Why Mike?

The Teamsters endorsed Governor Mike DeWine largely because of his opposition to Ohio adopting Right-to-Work (RtW) legislation. Battles over RtW have periodically broken out in the upper Midwest since the early part of the last decade, when the Republicans gained control of state governments throughout the region and passed anti-union laws. RtW laws are particularly damaging to public sector unions but also to private sector unions. But, they have proved to be politically unpopular.

In November 2011, according to the New York Times:

“A year after Republicans swept legislatures across the country, voters in Ohio delivered their verdict Tuesday on a centerpiece of the conservative legislative agenda, striking down a law that restricted public workers’ rights to bargain collectively.

The landslide vote to repeal the bill — 62 percent to 38 percent, according to preliminary results from Ohio’s secretary of state — was a slap to Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican who had championed the law as a tool for cities to cut costs. The bill passed in March on a wave of enthusiasm among Republicans fresh from victories.”

Since the public rebuke of  RtW most Ohio Republicans have largely avoided the issue since it proved to be so unpopular. In 2018, when DeWine was running for the first time for governor he was asked about signing RtW legislation if he was elected, he didn’t give a straight answer. Efforts by Republican legislators to add anti-union amendments to Ohio’s state constitution in 2018 also failed.

DeWine is the last person to rely on to stop any future RtW legislation. He has pursued an aggressive pro-business agenda, including mass tax subsidies to corporations and cutting taxes for the rich. DeWine welcomed the Teamsters endorsement. “We are grateful to the Ohio Conference of Teamsters (OCT) for their endorsement,” DeWine tweeted, “and look forward to our continued partnership.” What the nature of the “partnership” is would be interesting to discover.

OCT President Patrick J. Darrow also  enthused about DeWine:

“Governor DeWine and Lt. Governor Husted have earned the endorsement of the Ohio Conference of Teamsters with their ability to effectively communicate, and execute their vision of Ohio that protects and grows opportunities for Ohio’s working families.”

Darrow’s rosy endorsement of DeWine doesn’t match the reality for many of Ohio’s working families, where one recent study described it as a “legacy state”:

“Many people are already familiar with the idea of a legacy city, places that came to prominence in the early-to-mid 1900s around a manufacturing economy but experienced significant population and manufacturing industry losses in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Ohio is rife with places like this, containing 22 legacy cities surrounded by 15 legacy metros. Cities such as Akron, Toledo, and Dayton exemplify this concept.”

Ohio is devolving into “two states” with one booming region around the state capitol of Columbus and the rest of the state. What this means according to The Greater Ohio Policy Center is that:

“Ohio’s legacy cities are no longer experiencing precipitous population declines but may still be seeing only marginal population change, be it slow declines, slight growth or remaining steady. These dynamics go hand-in-hand with an aging population and decreased economic vitality. Despite this history, legacy cities today are still home to a significant concentration of jobs, residents, and anchor institutions that positively impact the state’s economy.”

DeWine’s social conservatism is also notorious, especially when it comes to abortion rights. He signed into law Ohio’s notorious “Heartbeat Bill” that bans abortion once as heartbeat is detected with no exceptions for rape or incest.  Abortion rights advocates have rightly called it a “forced pregnancy” law. Though the law was recently put on hold, why would the Teamsters support such a regressive attack on a woman’s right to control her body? What does that say about the Ohio Teamsters?

The Teamsters endorsement of DeWine gives a stamp of approval on the Republican control of state politics. Ohio was once but no longer considered a swing state in presidential elections. DeWine’s endorsement of the odious newly elected Senator J.D. Vance, who is as close to being fascist as you can possibly be in mainstream politics, helped legitimize and propel him to victory.

The Teamsters endorsed former Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan for the U.S. Senate, who was easily beaten by Vance,  who in-turn was also endorsed by Trump. Vance will now have a national platform to spew his racist filth from the U.S. Senate floor, along with his regular appearances on the popular Tucker Carlson show.

The Ryan alternative?

Yet, the alternative is not the likes of Tim Ryan. Ohio’s trade unions, including the Teamsters, overwhelmingly supported Democrat Ryan, a ten term congressman with a long pro-union record, against J.D. Vance. Ryan began his post-college political career working in the office of Ohio’s former notorious Congressman, the late James Traficant—a Mahoning county Sheriff turned  populist demagogue. Traficant was expelled from Congress in 2002, and Ryan succeeded him in office.

Ryan ran a campaign using largely the same tropes as Vance. His most notorious ad  “One Word” was so offensive that many Asian-American Democrats in Congress asked him to take it down. With Ryan wearing a “workers first” t-shirt, he declared over and over again, “China” and “It’s us versus them,” in front of approving audiences in union halls. Roll Call reported:

“The ad, part of a $3.3 million campaign running across the state, attracted immediate backlash from Democratic groups promoting Asian American issues. New York Rep. Grace Meng, the vice chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, called on Ryan to stop airing it. Shekar Narasimhan, the chairman of AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC that supports Asian American and Pacific Islander candidates, likened it to tactics inciting “hate” and “fear” used by Republicans emulating former President Donald Trump.”

“Rep. Tim Ryan’s ad for his Ohio Senate campaign stirs up a racist pedagogy vis-a-vis China and makes Americans of East Asian descent vulnerable to attacks,” Narasimhan said in a statement posted on Twitter.

Ryan refused to take the ad down. He tried some other tactics used by the Trumpian right by attacking Vance as a San Francisco tech mogul out of touch with real Americans. Ryan boasted, “I voted with Trump on trade, ” and for funding more police. He also dismissed issues like abortion, transgender right, and racism as “culture wars” with his “Bullseye” ad. “You want culture wars?” he asks in one TV ad, while throwing darts in a bar. “I’m not your guy. You want a fighter for Ohio? I’m all in.”

Expectations were running high for Tim Ryan. Ryan was the subject of an enthusiastic profile in The New Republic in mid-August,  “Tim Ryan: Right Man, Right Place, Right Time.” He was a model for winning back union voters to the Democrats. Author Alec MacGillis, in a guest column in the New York Times, called “Tim Ryan Is Winning the War for the Soul of the Democratic Party.”

In fact, Ryan spoke favorably about Trump’s policies on many occasions. So no wonder Ryan lost to Vance. When the choice is one the poisonous choice version of xenophobia or another. Should we be surprised that people chose the first party of bigotry?

For decades the right has dominated the political debate in the United States, especially around issues of trade, immigration, and jobs and their impact on older working class communities. In this way, the mythical electoral political center has continued to move to the right. From Trump to DeWine to Vance to Ryan, they represent a spectrum of agreement on these issues, especially anti-Chinese xenophobia, that the Teamsters have been historically identified with.

If all of this appears confusing and head spinning, that’s because it is. It’s hard to see any kind victory for the Teamsters or working class people in this mess. And while the Democrats were able to hold off a major Republican electoral wave earlier this month, the Teamsters support for DeWine and labor’s support for Ryan’s xenophobic campaign are not only a dead end, but serves to legitimizes far right politics among U.S. workers.

If the new Teamster leadership is actually going in a new direction, as O’Brien and his slate widely promised during the union elections, the type of cynical right-wing electoral strategy should be wholly left behind.

This piece first appeared in The Tempest.

JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.