Ohio victory offers lessons in running a successful referendum campaign

EDUCATION IS KEY to a referendum’s success, Petee Talley, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio AFL-CIO, says. Talley presented the keynote address at the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists St. Louis Chapter Under 40 Committee’s recent Organizing for Change education forum at Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788. – Labor Tribune photo

Education is key


Pierrette “Petee” Talley, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio AFL-CIO, offered some insights into running a successful statewide initiative petition campaign while providing the keynote address at the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists St. Louis Chapter Under 40 Committee’s recent Organizing for Change education forum at Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788.

Ohio voters in 2011 successfully overturned Senate Bill 5, a law that, for public sector workers, would have resulted in the loss of most of their bargaining rights, including the right to charge fair share fees and the right to strike.

A total of 231,149 signatures were needed to place the measure on the ballot. Referendum proponents submitted more than 1.3 million signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State. And voters overturned the unfair law by a 62-38 percent margin.

Talley, whose career began with AFSCME Ohio Council 8 in Toledo organizing public sector workers, is the first woman to hold one of the top two offices in the Ohio AFL-CIO in the federation’s 56-year history.

She sat down with the Labor Tribune prior to the CBTU forum to offer her insights into what made the Ohio campaign successful and how those same lessons can be applied to Missouri workers’ efforts now underway to repeal the so-called “right-to-work” law.


Education was key to the referendum’s success Talley said, and it started before the measure was even on the ballot by educating signature gatherers so they could effectively discuss the harmful effects of the law with Ohio voters.

After the signatures were turned in, more than 17,000 volunteers made phone calls and went door-to-door in a massive grass roots campaign to let Ohioans know that SB 5, which impacted police, fire fighters, teachers, social workers, garbage collectors and others, was unfair, unsafe and hurt all Ohioans.

They supplemented the grass roots outreach and field efforts with an earned and paid media campaign. In less than six months, organizers held more than 520 press events across the state, all to let voters know what was at stake.

“I think key to success was engaging our activists and not just having staff that work for unions out there on the front line of the campaign,” Talley said.

“Actually, activists kind of were guiding us more so than we were guiding them which was kind of refreshing. High functioning activists in the Labor Movement became signature gatherers, they were able to take the talking points around the threat of the campaign and engage voters while they were getting a signature from them in the petition gathering campaign.

“For me the campaign didn’t start after we got the signature, the campaign started as we were getting the signatures because we were able to have an exchange with the voter about what this bill was and what it would do to communities.”

Much as the Missouri AFL-CIO is doing in the campaign to overturn ‘RTW,’ Ohio Labor leaders developed a curriculum and trained people on how to gather signatures and how to register voters.

“We did that not only with our activists and our members, we actually extended that campaign and that training to communities of interest,” Talley said. “The AME Church became an integral partner allowing for us to come in and train their pastors and their lay leaders on how to gather signatures, and they became an outpost on where you could come to sign a petition. We did the same thing with the NAACP and the sororities and the fraternities. We just really took the time to train those folks on how to get a signature and how to talk about the campaign from their perspective.”


Another key part of the campaigns success, Talley said, was discipline, keeping everyone on the same message, using the same methods and following the same rules.

“The principles that were impacted and those that supported the campaign and were part of the executive committee were very disciplined in message, methodology, the whole nine yards,” Talley said.

“It wasn’t difficult, I think we all agreed that we had to be disciplined because we kept saying to ourselves ‘The other side beats us up because they’re disciplined in their mission and we’ve got to have that same discipline.’ We got there pretty quickly.”

Not that everyone agreed with the initial message.

“The union leaders wanted to make the campaign about four classifications of workers that were impacted – police, fire fighters, teachers and nurses,” Talley said. “That was the face that they wanted to put on the campaign.

“I’m a member of AFSCME, and many of our members who were also impacted by the campaign, they ride on the back of garbage trucks, they work in the welfare department, they collect leaves in the fall and shovel your snow. We needed to get that face of the campaign out there too so people could see it wasn’t just about protecting those higher level, higher educated levels of profession, that it was people who worked really hard, were able to get into the union with just a high school education and were able to live the middle class life because of collective bargaining. We had to fight for the nuance of that during the campaign.”


In the end, Talley said, the campaign built unity.

“I think people were able to see themselves in the campaign, even if you were not a teacher or a police officer, a nurse or a fire fighter,” she said. “People that worked at children’s services board for instance. Like my son, for instance. He works for the children’s services board and when I first talked to him about the campaign, he knew nothing about it because that’s not how unions were talking about the campaign. They were talking about police, fire, teachers and nurses. And I said, ‘No. This is going to impact your job because your job, the funding for your job, you’re covered by a collective bargaining agreement that would be done away with if this law is allowed to stand.’ And he was like ‘Oh, I know that they talked to us about it, but they really didn’t say that it affected us in that way.’ It really was trying to make sure that we had a lot of messengers that were out there and covering all the bases.”


“We could have done what most campaigns do and hired a petition gathering firm,” Talley said. “Some of the signatures may have come that way, but we got way more bang for our buck. where we actually took the time to train the people, give the people the talking points – the activitists, the union community – give them talking points and have them go out and get the signatures.”

And Talley said the message communicated better by having union members gathering signatures.

“They were our front line in just talking about this bill and being able to say, ‘This is going to have an impact on me.’ If you were in any of those classifications that would have been impacted by the repeal of collective bargaining in Ohio people got that. They got that right away. That’s why I say the campaign actually started in the signature gathering phase, because you’ve already got the voter contact at that point.”


“I think one of the allies that we gained in all of this was the governor who signed the bill into law (Ohio Gov. John Kasich),” Talley said.

“He clearly understands that somehow or another they underestimated the will of the people in terms of wanting to have collective bargaining so workers can earn a decent living and maintain a middle class status. Some of the messaging that we had in the campaign was along those lines. So, he clearly gets that this should not be something that they rush into again. There was a loud message sent to the legislature that people do want a middle class existence in Ohio. I think that’s true not only in our state but universally.

“If we can couch our economic messages in a way that doesn’t appear to be partisan in nature, I think we can win every time. I think we can push past the Koch brothers agenda and ALEC’s agenda if we talk about our campaign in a way that there should be a flourishing middle class and a flourishing working class and people see unions or collective bargaining as a way to have that middle class existence.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here