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What Was the Matter with Ohio?: Unions and Evangelicals in the Rust Belt

James Straub is a writer and union organizer in Las Vegas.

It was a fittingly ironic end to an election full of grotesque twists: When George W. Bush was narrowly reelected president of the United States, it was the electoral votes of the state he had harmed most that gave him the final nudge across the finish line. Ohio went for the second election in a row to the Republican clown prince. But if the first Bush victory was tragedy, the one in 2004 was surely farce: has world history ever turned before on the artful elevation of gay bashing to an electoral tactic?

“In twenty-one years of organizing, I’ve never seen anything like this,” former trucker’s union organizer Phil Burress told the New York Times shortly after the election. “It’s a forest fire with a 100 mile-per-hour wind behind it.” Burress was speaking not of the efforts of unions and community organizations to register and turn out hundreds of thousands of new voters to the polls in Ohio to vote against Bush, but of his crusade to mobilize even larger numbers to pass a state constitution amendment prohibiting gay marriage.

The demographics and causes of Bush’s slim victory in Ohio and the country continue to be debated—for instance, while 25 percent of Ohio voters identified themselves as white evangelicals (and 78 percent of them voted for Bush), the Washington Post’s number-crunching later revealed that the percentage of frequent church-goers voting in Ohio actually declined 5 percent in 2004—and Congressman John Conyers has documented evidence of electoral fraud that indicates Ohio my have been this election’s secret Florida. However, it remains undeniable that Bush’s Ohio victory did come in part from a massive outpouring of socially conservative evangelical Christians to the polls. A large majority of these Republican evangelicals were blue-collar Ohioans voting against their self-interest, many mobilized by Burress’s anti-gay marriage amendment.

Karl Rove’s savvy manipulation of opposition to same-sex marriage was mirrored, however, by a far stranger picture at the state level in Ohio. The amendment, which also prohibits legal recognition of any domestic partnership short of marriage, was widely expected to drive even more of Ohio’s young people (and even businesses) away from the state—further hurting the state’s economy—and thus it was opposed by most of the state’s top Republican politicians and corporations. Ohio’s Republican senators, governor, and attorney general, plus the state’s Chamber of Commerce, all attempted to halt Burress’s homophobic firestorm—with no success. Few voters realized the amendment would strip health benefits from even unmarried heterosexual domestic partners.

The evangelical churches organized one of the most energetic grassroots political campaigns in state history. With the enthusiastic support of just a few prominent right-wing politicians, like Ohio’s black, evangelical secretary of state Ken Blackwell, the amendment against same-sex marriage easily won an electoral majority of 62 percent. Among white workers over forty without a college degree (who make up a majority of this mostly blue-collar state’s electorate), the amendment did particularly well.

This working-class twist on the election immediately led to one left-leaning pundit’s stock going through the roof: Thomas Frank, who had diagnosed the malady earlier in 2004 in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? The book ponders the rise of a solid Republican majority in Kansas, which was once the incubator of American populism. After election day, Frank’s book became required reading for endangered and desperate American liberals. However, while Frank’s detailed case study grounded the book’s insights in a fascinating microcosm, it is worth remembering that Kansas itself is far from the most pressing political battlefield in the country. Kansas is part of the solidly Republican heartland, and it will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. However important rebuilding the left in the heartland may be in the long term, neither that state nor its neighbors will soon be a decisive electoral battleground. Rather, as polls regularly show, the region holding back the floodtide of indefinite Republican supremacy is the northern Midwest, Great Lakes region—otherwise known as the rust belt. And the dike is about to burst.

By any pundit’s math, the grim truth of the 2004 election was that Bush was threatening Kerry in many more “blue” states than was true for Kerry threats in the “red” states. The states in the entire northern Midwest rust belt—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio, a list that sounds like a roll call of states that benefited most from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—all stood within a percentage point of being swept by Republicans, continuing a trend of becoming inexorably red. Meanwhile, the poorest state of the rust belt, and long the most militantly Democratic, West Virginia, has gone entirely over to the dark side, with Bush winning by a shattering 13 percent. If Republicans begin to win decisive West Virginia–style majorities in the rest of the Great Lakes region, they can become a permanent ruling party—able finally to legislate away what remains of the public sector, unions, reproductive freedom, and minority rights. The pressing question to be asked, from a tactical last-stand standpoint, is this: What’s the matter with the rust belt?

To take Ohio, specifically—well, what isn’t the matter with Ohio, these days? Throughout Bush’s first term, the state constantly vied with Michigan for the dubious honor of most jobs lost. The hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs lost since 2000 were largely high-wage, stable, union jobs, which served as employment multipliers in the larger local economy. For every plate glass factory or tractor plant that shuts its gates, a locally owned grocery or barbershop goes out of business too. Though poverty has been endemic to Ohio since the great steel shutdowns began in the late 1970s, on Bush’s watch Cleveland officially became the poorest city in America (with Toledo several spots behind). And with General Motors on the brink of bankruptcy, the state may be on the verge of another great crash in industrial employment. Anonymous blue-collar towns like Canton, Springfield, and Akron continued to bleed jobs and people, while former steel capital Youngstown has lost more than half of its 1950 population. Local teens there, savvier about American political economy than most credentialed cultural critics, call their town “Yompton”—in reference to the urban devastation of Compton, California as famously depicted in NWA’s hip-hop album, Straight Outta Compton. The comparison is telling—as the state continues to deindustrialize, African-Americans bear the brunt, stranded as an underclass in every dying urban core. Indeed, in the past decade Ohio has exhibited symptoms of a genuine 1960s-style racial crisis, with the second-longest prison uprising in America (at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, 1993), the execution of a black inmate widely believed to be innocent (John William Byrd Jr., in 2002, also in Lucasville), and a major race rebellion sparked by police brutality (in Cincinnati, 2001).

The Compton of NWA, of course, weathers its woes in a different statewide context than any Youngstown or Akron. For Ohio lacks significant taxable resources—the Mahoning Valley is no Silicon Valley, and there is no housing bubble of note there. A list of today’s boom industries (biotechnology, energy, computers, and tourism) reads like a list of things Ohio largely or wholly lacks. And with few economic opportunities mixing with the state’s Midwestern patriotism, Ohio’s blue-collar towns and small cities bear a disproportionate share of the burden of their president’s imperial adventures. The Ohio-based Third Marine Battalion, for example, has had forty-seven soldiers die in Iraq as of this past summer, seventeen of whom died riding in an unarmored vehicle. The lives of mere leathernecks from the rust belt are not quite as expendable as those of Iraqi civilians to the neoconservative world-shapers safely hunkered down in air-conditioned Green Zones, but then again, what’s a few less laid-off Ohioans to Paul Wolfowitz? Indeed, such deaths are as close as Bush has come to decreasing Ohio’s unemployment figures.

This landscape of poverty and brutality is all the more bitter for Ohio, since it was the sweat and blood of places like this that originally made the American Dream a reality for many people. In countless coal mines, steel mills, and industrial factories, Ohioans have prided themselves on doing the arduous work of actually producing the goods many saw as American prosperity—and in just as many strikes and struggles, assuring that those who produced would also have a share of the wealth. For as long as Ohio has been an industrial megalopolis, workers there have been contentiously demanding their rights and their share. Since the mid-nineteenth century, working people in Ohio organized, struck, fought, and even rioted—from machinists in Dayton to streetcar operators in Columbus, on rails up north and in dockyards down south. A frequent epicenter of both class conflict and labor organizing, ragtime Ohio hosted the founding conventions of labor federations as diverse as the large, conservative American Federation of Labor, the early industrial United Mineworkers of America, and even the short-lived, Communist-led Trade Union Unity League. Workers’ struggles in the state produced socialist mayors in towns like Lima and Lorain, outright mobs in Cincinnati and Toledo, and intermittent unionization everywhere a worker drew a paycheck.

It was not until the 1930s, however, when a structural disaster in American capitalism (the Great Depression) coincided with a new form of labor organization—wholesale industrial organization of the mass production industries—and workers in Ohio changed not just their paychecks but the world. Mass unionization swept outwards from the Great Lakes region, all the way to traditional anti-union strongholds like the south’s textile mills and Hollywood’s sound stages. This Depression-era birth of an “American Dream” social contract came via the labor pains of often insurrectionary upheaval against the forces of property and government.

The year 1934 in the Ohio cities of Toledo and Akron provides salutary examples. The northwest-Ohio city of Toledo was in the grip of a comprehensive local banking crash that put a greater percentage of the city’s residents on public relief than anywhere else in the country. Across the state in Akron, widespread tax fraud by property-holders cut the city’s revenue base so drastically that public schools were forced to close their doors, while the city’s huge rubber companies protected their multimillion-dollar annual profits by enforcing wage cuts with the outright violent terrorization of their workers.

Such draconian expressions of top-down class war confronted local workers who had previously tried union organization and strikes, only to fail bitterly. However, growing radical movements in both cities refused to cry uncle. In Toledo, socialist organizers were key in mobilizing large crowds of thousands of unemployed to join picketers on strike outside an auto plant—battling the National Guard and trapping scab workers inside the factory. Meanwhile, in Akron, a strike of rubber workers resulted in the spontaneous invention of the “sit-down” strike, where workers occupied their factory, thus threatening the bosses with the destruction of expensive equipment in the event of violence. In both Toledo and Akron, such tactics—support from mass crowds and “sit-down” factory occupation—heralded their use in hundreds of successive labor battles. They also resulted in victories that gave unions a foothold in the new mass-production industries: collective bargaining at the Auto-Lite plant in Toledo, and industrial union recognition at the Akron rubber plants. In imitation, workers at a Cleveland General Motors plant several years later began an angry sit-down strike that sparked a multi-state wave of workplace occupations that culminated in the victorious Flint GM sit-down—the victory that unionized GM and paved the way for a social contract in American workplaces.

Despite all this left-led industrial conflict, Ohio never developed the kind of mass counterculture or the left-wing third parties that unions birthed in places like New York City or Wisconsin. Instead, Ohio’s class struggles simply gave the state an exceptionally blue-collar self-identity and left pockets of radical workers scattered across its industrial hinterlands. This is the ideologically varied class sentiment that brought modern Ohio such diverse populists as Dayton talk-show host Phil Donahue, Cleveland left-wing politician Dennis Kucinich, Youngstown’s flamboyant oddball James Traficant, and Cincinnati’s Jerry Springer (a little bit of all the above). As a state that was heavily industrialized and unionized, but always seen as a bit of a cultureless manufacturing backwater, Ohio, like neighbors Michigan and West Virginia, has remained a singularly working-class place, with deep reservoirs of economic resentment.

It was this smoldering blue-collar spirit that brought a trickle of New Left radicals to Ohio in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Searching for white working-class support for rebellion during America’s Vietnam-era upheavals, young revolutionaries of all stripes began to see the factories of the Midwest as their Petrograd. When New Left intellectual Staughton Lynd met a handful of ordinary, meat-and-potatoes Youngstown steelworkers who were also anti-war radicals, he thought, “On this rock shall I build my church,” and teamed with local “mill hunks” John Barbero and Ed Mann to build a labor left in the Mahoning Valley. Members of their Worker’s Solidarity Club formed rank-and-file caucuses in the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and led wildcat strikes in steel mills; sent electricians and steelworkers to revolutionary Nicaragua to help build similar industries; and created a vibrant blue-collar antiwar movement (steelworker John Barbero, whose parents were Italian and Czech and whose wife was Japanese, used to explain in meetings that he was antiwar because in any conceivable war he would have to fight a relative).

Nor was such mainstream radicalism confined to Staughton and Alice Lynd’s work in Youngstown. Across the state in Dayton, for instance, the 1960s saw women from progressive churches and unions join counterculture radicals in a prominent local women’s liberation movement. This group, Dayton Women’s Liberation, achieved local prominence by starting abortion clinics, women’s centers, and clerical labor organizations. Given the fundamentalist assault on reproductive rights today in Ohio, who would guess that in Dayton in the 1960s those rights were won by groups founded by churchwomen! While such labor-New Left hybrids never brought any Ohio cities to wholesale rebellion the way Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers did, such radical moments in places like Youngstown and Dayton reveal a political space in the heartland that was once open to the left.

Yet this small door would slam shut in the 1980s, and not just from the general rightward shift of the time. Deindustrialization itself did as much or more to terminate the Ohio left. In Youngstown, after years of being the rank-and-file opposition in their steelworkers’ union, radicals John Barbero and Ed Mann assembled a winning coalition of black and progressive white steelworkers to win the presidency of their steelworkers’ local in 1973. But shortly after they had been reelected in 1976, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company announced plans to close the great Brief Hill steelworks. Barbero and Mann (along with the Lynds and their fledgling Youngstown labor-left group) fought a brave and innovative campaign to stop the shutdown, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. Far from leading a revolution by halting steel production at a key moment, radicals saw the company cease steel production on its own, in the face of cheaper imports and lower wage competition abroad—leaving Mann to spend his remaining years haunting the bankruptcy courts of Youngstown, continuing to courageously protest the foreclosures and evictions of laid-off steelworkers from their American Dream.

The economic catastrophes of the 1980s laid waste not just to the seeds of a new labor left, but also to Ohio’s cities and industrial areas. In Cleveland, where the labor-left politician Dennis Kucinich had become the youngest mayor in America, plant shutdowns and white flight destroyed the city’s resource base, causing social chaos easily blamed on the radical kid mayor. The local banking elite, eager for a confrontation with Kucinich, ordered him to privatize the city’s electric utility. He refused, and the banks called his bluff by calling the city’s loans into default. In the ensuing economic meltdown, Kucinich lost his reelection bid, making local government safe for capitalism again.

Ohio’s cities, manufacturing industries, and unions have been on life support ever since. The old interlocking forms of New Deal social democracy—urban machine/social safety net/unionized mass-production industry—are on a terminal slide to extinction. As all over America, they are gradually being replaced by a new comprehensive social organization—nonunion Wal-Mart jobs/antisocial exurban sprawl/hyper-individualist consumerism—whose value system is as oriented towards the Republican right as the old New Deal was to FDR Democrats. In this equation, the role of ideological prime movers has switched: just as left-wing CIO unions used to be the instigators and organizers of the discontent that created the rest of the social structure, now it is the equally (but oppositely) ideological evangelical churches that stoke the fires of blue-collar anger in Ohio. Wal-Mart has replaced the steel companies as the state’s largest employer; the sprawling exurbs of Columbus and Cincinnati have replaced Cleveland as its fastest growing areas; and the Assemblies of God and Church of the Nazarene are the new Steelworkers and Autoworkers.

Ohio has always been a devout place—there are more Methodist churches than post offices in the state. However, as all over the country, more liberal, old, mainline denominations like the Methodists have lost parishioners just as the industrial cities have bled jobs. Taking their place is a mass movement of largely fundamentalist, right-wing Protestant churches—the born again, or evangelical, movement. And while not every born-again Christian is a fundamentalist or a conservative, there is no denying that this conservative evangelical movement is leading to both a growth in adherents and a shift to the right for mainstream Christianity. Such churches operate as a more decentralized network than their proprietary forefathers, and their common denominator is not just traditionalist social conservatism. It is a missionary zeal for spreading the word, recruiting in large numbers, and developing members’ emotional commitment and ability to further proselytize. This is, by the way, a classic grassroots organizing model, one that is unused not just by the dwindling mainline churches, but also by the dying industrial unions and the left in general. Stepping assertively into a vacuum of grassroots organization in so many communities, evangelical churches have flexed awesome political muscle, and they have become the political foot soldiers of a far-right Republican new world order in the same way unions used to secure the New Deal. In an episode of the television show Frontline about Karl Rove’s Republican organization, Dana Millbank of the Washington Post said, “Now, where Karl’s interest is, is in the mechanics of this. And I think it’s fair to say that religious conservatives, evangelical churches, have become sort of the new labor unions.”

While it may appear that evangelical traditionalism has cleanly stepped in to fill a void in working-class organizations left by the decline of both unions and the urban-industrial social contract, the reality is more complex. Evangelicals, even Pentecostal Holiness churches, are no longer the singularly working-class religion they once were. The fortunes of some 1970s evangelicals were boosted greatly by the Texas oil boom and the economic growth of the Sun Belt—creating the conservative nouveau riche that work in the energy industries, pray in the fundamentalist churches, and run for office in the Republican Party. The growth of industries in suburban sprawl, armaments, agribusiness, and energy has a symbiotic relationship with other social meta-processes, like the move from rust belt to sun belt, the decline of urban cores and growth of exurbs, and de-unionization. Superprofits in those sectors, meanwhile, fatten more Republican campaign coffers; through conservative movement groups and church collection plates, they provide the resource base for the organizing work evangelicals do. The evangelical churches could thus be seen as a cross-class movement where super-profits in Republican-dominated industries are tithed out to fund sophisticated grassroots organizing by the fundamentalist cadre.

The presence of this kind of money allows these churches, especially the enormous megachurches that dominate the political landscape of America’s burgeoning exurbs, to provide the kind of material social programs the New Deal once stood for. As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in an article on the religious welfare state earlier this year,

[At] McLean Bible Church, spiritual home of Senator James Inhofe and other prominent right-wingers…dozens of families and teenagers enjoy a low-priced dinner in the cafeteria; a hundred unemployed people meet for prayer and job tips at the “Career Ministry” divorced and abused women gather in support groups. Among its many services, MBC distributes free clothing to 10,000 poor people a year, helped start an inner-city ministry for at-risk youth in DC and operates a “special needs” ministry for disabled children.

While McLean is an archetypal exurb megachurch, Ehrenreich notes that also

many smaller evangelical churches offer a similar array of services—childcare, after-school programs, ESL lessons, help in finding a job, not to mention the occasional cash handout. A woman I met in Minneapolis gave me her strategy for surviving bouts of destitution: “First, you find a church.” A trailer-park dweller in Grand Rapids told me that he often turned to his church for help with the rent. Got a drinking problem, a vicious spouse, a wayward child, a bill due? Find a church.1

What separates these evangelical social programs from those of liberal churches or even resources provided by the left is that they implicitly and explicitly harness loyalties to the Republican Party, which seeks to destroy the hard-won public sector that is supposed to provide such safety nets in the first place. Of course, here the Republicans are well-aided by the Democratic Party, which no longer even pretends to legislate for such material gains. With the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council firmly in control of the party, anything that smacks of old New Deal social spending is jettisoned for vain appeals to the copious cash (and few votes) of the entertainment, finance, and information industries.

The economic benefits of evangelical faith, however, are not the prime motivators for most peoples’ church membership. In an essay challenging the idea that liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis can offer the devout a progressive version of their religion, radical former fundamentalist Roxeanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out that the current evangelical movement was born first as a mixture of Protestant fundamentalism and Cold-War anticommunism, that was later energized to mass political action by the women’s and gay movements. “One thing I know about Protestant Christian fundamentalists from having been one, however, is that it cannot be substituted by ‘spirituality.’…The system rests on quite simple assumptions: you have heard the word of god personally calling you; you have been ‘born again’ or ‘saved’ you recognize that Jesus is the true son of god who died for your sins; the Bible is literally the truth, the word of god.”2 These churches all have complex mixtures of passion and patronage at their core—where traditionalist protection of the symbolic cultural status of straightness, whiteness, and maleness mixes with both genuine religious conviction and genuine religious-based social programs.

In his analysis of Kerry’s ominous drubbing in rust-belt West Virginia, Mike Davis points out that local Democrats still won the governorship and two congressional seats in that state by equally large margins, partially because they pandered to social conservatism, but also because they crusaded vocally for government action to reduce unemployment and create high-wage jobs while the national Democratic Party did the opposite in supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). “I am inclined to believe that literal ‘false consciousness’—embracing purely imaginary solidarities with one’s exploiter or oppressor—is not common. I am not denying the existence of symbolic wages and imaginary demons, but the cultural war rages most fiercely when it is able to mobilize material self-interest, however ignorant or short-sighted.” Davis continues,

The “latte liberal” libel—visceral blue-collar contempt for the urban knowledge-industry elites—is, after all, grounded in a real historic defeat, in actual humiliation. Male workers of all races, without college education, have suffered dramatic erosion of their wage-earning power and cultural status. With union halls shut down and the independent press extinct, it is not surprising that many poor white people search for answers in their churches or from demagogues on the radio. Or that they equate the decay of employment security with the decay of family values.3

This world of blue-collar religious conservatism is a mixture of real and perceived benefits, more akin to the concept of white-skin privilege than, say, a simple urban patronage machine.

Evangelical conservatism is no all-white backlash phenomenon, however. For the modern evangelical passions have their roots in the poor, multiracial early Pentecostal churches of southern California. Evangelical religion maintains an enormous presence in the spiritual life of African-American and Latino communities in the United States, and the Republican Party is making its electoral inroads into those communities through the pulpits. Not only did the Republican Party dominate among white working-class people this last election, it won a majority of Protestant Latino votes. And in Ohio, where the black, evangelical secretary of state campaigned vigorously for Bush (in blatant conflict with his election supervising duties) and megachurch pastors like Rod Parsley speak (hypocritically but convincingly) to multiracial congregations about challenging racial prejudice and promoting a black middle class, Bush won 14 percent of the state’s black vote. This is not a relationship equivalent to that of white evangelicalism, of course; the grass-roots born-again Christianity that produces Chicago’s Kanye West or LA’s Tommy the Clown bears little connection to the bigoted zealotry of Tom Delay and James Dobson. But the Republicans are increasing their electoral showings in communities of color almost exclusively through socially conservative evangelical religion, and continued success could give them permanent majority-party supremacy—a fact they lustfully comprehend.

This is exactly the intention of the Bush administration’s office of faith-based initiatives, a promise to direct eight billion dollars to religious social service groups. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the money is largely being funneled to evangelical churches in African-American and Latino communities that badly need the services. Two examples from Philadelphia give a sense of the breadth of this little-noticed repositioning of Republican theocracy: In one New York Timesarticle, the Baptist minister Rev. Luis Cortes was featured parlaying a friendship with President Bush into several million dollars in federal grants for a youth employment program, housing counseling, and AIDS education. His growing network of Republican-funded social service programs now encompasses Latino communities in half a dozen poor cities. The article noted,

For a glimpse of one of the political currents running through the program, consider the after-school effort run by Mr. Castro, where a group of schoolchildren recently convened for what might be described as a Pentecostal poetry slam….“President Bush is Christian,” said Sade Melendez, 10, after a recent rehearsal. “He doesn’t believe in abortion, and the other man does.” “John Kerry believes in lesbians,” said Jorge Granados, 10. “He said if the baby was in the stomach, you could kill the baby,” said Krystalie Ocasio, 9. “He stinks,” Sade said.4

Meanwhile, a mile east in North Philadelphia, the Bush administration has used millions of dollars in federal aid to court the “praying tailback,” Rev. Herb Lusk, a former Philadelphia Eagles running back turned preacher at Greater Exodus Baptist Church. Lusk heads People for People, Inc., a church-based social-services empire that has broken ranks with the mostly Democratic Philadelphia black clergy to support Bush, claiming his bottom line is halting gay marriage. Beyond mobilizing election-day support for the president (in another rust-belt swing state), Lusk has also given Bush political cover for his treacherous abandonment of the Global AIDS Fund by hosting Bush to speak on AIDS at Greater Exodus. Such a location and betrayal are particularly ironic in Philadelphia, since it was largely African-American mass protests on global AIDS led by ACT-UP Philadelphia, working with existing HIV/AIDS services and drug recovery houses, that helped win the creation of the global fund in the first place. The effective, progressive and socially activist network of AIDS programs and addiction-recovery centers that united in these protests, however, starve for funds while well-connected gay-bashing tailbacks build fiefdoms next door.

This is the geography of religion, homophobia, and money—an inextricable Gordian knot of political power not just in Thomas Frank’s Kansas, but also spreading from the blue-collar suburbs and prosperous exurbs of places like Ohio to poorer African-American and Latino neighborhoods of cities like Philadelphia. These are the deindustrialized swing states; places where Republican dominance could mean that party’s control of the presidency for decades. The left has all but abandoned these places where the factories closed and unions died. Here in the rust belt, a right-wing network of churches and businesses offers exactly what the CIO once did: bothshort-term material gains for members and a militantly transformative vision of the world. Their vision is reactionary and fundamentalist, of course, but it remains in every sense a comprehensive moral judgment on a crass, decadent twenty-first century America. As former union activist and current evangelical crusader Phil Burress said in closing to the New York Times (in language that might have come right from an old CIO militant): “our movement is not concerned necessarily with Republicans or Democrats; people who are in positions with those parties do what they do because it serves their self-interest. Our movement will be something more, to change this world with our moral vision.”5

Thus a trip to the dying industrial cities and vapid sprawl suburbs of Ohio can bring America face-to-face with the answer to so many liberals’ plaintive, hung-over question last November third: “Who are these people?” Snapshots of those who likely voted for Bush, against their interests, and tragically paid the ultimate price for the madman’s ambitions can be found in the brief obituaries the New York Times published in an article about the Marines of the Third Battalion. “Lance Cpl. Eric J. Bernholz, 23, was a devoted member of the Grove City Church of the Nazarene, and poured his energy into acting in its plays and coaching church youth sports. He graduated from Grove City High School and sometimes talked of wanting to be a firefighter.”6 Grove City is a blue-collar suburb of Cleveland, largely populated by folks like retired steelworkers—in a municipal area that lays off, not hires, firefighters. Another obituary spends a sentence recounting a life from a small town south of Columbus continually menaced by the possible closure of the paper mill that supports the local economy: “Lance Cpl. Aaron H. Reed, 21, a long distance runner on cross-country and track teams, was the president of class of ’01 at Southeastern High School in Chillicothe, where job opportunities are few and the military is a popular option. He has a brother serving in Afghanistan.”

This is the 51 percent of voting America that will not be swayed from the Republican far right (back to a center-right Democratic Party?) merely by a different “framing” of issues. Indeed, the activists of both the left and the Democratic Party have seemed equally befuddled since Bush’s reelection, as well they should be. If the answer is not as simple as a different “messaging” or more blog-organizing, it is also not just another teach-in or protest in another college town or chic progressive ghetto. If the political loyalties of ordinary Ohioans were to be flung against the power structure in a progressive movement, it would likely only happen the only way it ever has happened in the state’s history—by a reinvigorated labor movement at the grassroots. The mass growth of unions not only organizes the membership of a social movement, it also begins to redistribute resources and power from the top down. In places like Ohio, the only feasible short-term economic gains for most people lie in unionizing the state’s remaining industries (those that physically cannot leave and are unlikely to shut down)—just as the only feasible long-term prospects for a revitalized left in the exurbs and church turf is in the workplaces that still bind people together. Fortunately, for this article seeks not to dwell in cynical pessimism, Ohio is home to some of the most unnoticed, but exciting, grassroots labor organizing in the country.

Two unions that offer some hope in Ohio are the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC, which represent some 6,000 farm workers in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan) and the Columbus-headquartered Ohio District 1199 of SEIU (which encompasses some 25,000 health care and social service workers in Ohio, West Virginia, and Appalachian Kentucky). These unions have had little-noticed but important organizing breakthroughs in recent years—in different, and key, working-class demographics. FLOC’s farm-worker membership base consists almost entirely of immigrants from Latin America, and the union’s successes are a rare foothold to greater economic and political power for the culturally invisible army of Latino proletarians who increasingly do the farm work, meatpacking, and construction labor in the Midwest. District 1199 WV/KY/OH, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly female and multiracial, along the contours of health care employment in the region (largely African Americans in battered urban cores like Cleveland and Akron; and blue-collar whites from the steel suburbs to the foothills of Appalachia). District 1199 in particular has an unmatched record of new organizing in Ohio, winning almost all of the many union elections it files for and devoting more of its resources to organizing (some 50 percent) than almost any other union.

Both 1199 and FLOC are extending their Ohio gains outward from the state. FLOC, after waging a campaign against Mt. Olive Pickle Company for years, recently won a landmark organizing victory over them in North Carolina for 9,000 workers (which marks the single biggest collective bargaining victory ever in that Southern, right-to-work state). District 1199 WV/KY/OH, while sticking to its three-state region for organizing, has become a “flagship local” for SEIU nationally as that union attempts to gear its entire structure towards such an organizing focus. In the new Change to Win union coalition, SEIU and the similarly-focused UNITE-HERE are now reshaping union organizing entirely to rebuild union density before it drops to zero, and it is bypassing the AFL-CIO (and it’s slavish devotion to the Democratic Party) to do so. Such extensions of success outwards from Ohio to new terrain follow what must be labor’s path to rebuild power: consolidate strength in those regions and industries currently possible, in order to later take on the juggernauts of Wal-Mart and the non-union South.

Despite a reinvigorated labor movement, many progressives (and certainly top Democratic politicians) have simply forgotten about unions as a unifying social movement of blue-collar people. In such a post-labor left, many social-justice activists wonder, legitimately, if it is even conceivable anymore that worker organizations could bring progressive values back into the hearts and homes of rust-belt evangelical communities. Certainly, fighting for a voice at work does not automatically imply an organizational challenge to broadly felt anxieties about abortion or homophobia. But the lasting effect of a mass fight for unionization can be seen in Akron and Toledo, the two Ohio cities that experienced virtual insurrections against established authority in 1934. While much of the rest of Ohio has tilted rightward with the times, those cities have remained overwhelmingly progressive and Democratic. Indeed, Akron, which contemporary journalist Ruth McKinney noted during the Great Depression was an “almost 100% native-born white city…with one of the highest percentage of veterans’ organizations in the country,”4 was notorious for being a conservative Republican town prior to 1934. After cataclysmic sit-down strikes against the rubber-factory tyrants, however, the city gained a broad swath of institutional progressive blue-collar organization. Compare this to Cincinnati, where some unionization occurred in the 1930s but certainly no transformative social struggle, and most working-class white people today vote Republican (indeed, such conservatism supports an out-of-control racist police force, whose multiple murders in the black community sparked riots in 2001).

But can unions today, like FLOC and 1199, operating in such a different political context, possibly pull off similar unionization that leads to a mass changing of loyalties among ordinary working-class people? Indeed, these unions’ memberships encompass a wide range of political viewpoints about issues like abortion and gay marriage, and although they both certainly marshaled large majorities of their memberships to oppose Bush in 2004, it is debatable if many of those members also supported the initiative against same-sex marriage or Bush’s Iraq war. Any changing of consciousness will only happen through hard work and patience, individual by individual, in the communities and workplaces where different kinds of people are brought together by the material conditions of their life. But to close on an optimistic note, 1199 took two important votes at a statewide delegates’ assembly two years ago. The delegates assembly is made up of shop-floor representatives of each workplace—the grass-roots leaders of small groups, usually the people who carry union drives through management threats and firings with their personal bravery and integrity. The delegates’ assembly, meeting to oversee the continuing organizing work of the union, voted by a large majority to oppose the war in Iraq. They also voted—narrowly, after passionate debate by both sides—to support the right to same-sex marriage.


  1. Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Faith Factor,” The Nation, November 29, 2004.
  2. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “Being a Protestant Fundamentalist,”
  3. 3. Mike Davis, unpublished manuscript, undated.
  4. 4. Jason Deparle, “Hispanic Group Thrives on Faith and Federal Aid,” New York Times, May 3, 2005.
  5. 5. James Dao, “Flush with Victory, Grass-roots Crusader against Same-Sex Marriage Thinks Big,” New York Times, November 26, 2004.
  6. 6. John Kifner, “Death Visits a Marine Unit, Once Called Lucky,” New York Times, August 7, 2005.
2006, Volume 57, Issue 08 (January)
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