Wexner Center, workers, the WWU logo

Columbus is witnessing two labor movements, and while Starbucks United has had success, the other more local of the two, Wex Workers United, says it is in a standoff with its boss, the Ohio State University.

Wex Workers United or “WWU” and its affiliate union, AFSCME Ohio Council 8, first asked OSU for voluntary recognition three months ago because an “overwhelming number” of Wexner Center for the Arts employees support unionization, but there’s been no answer from the university.

If OSU refuses to allow the union, Wexner Center workers would take a vote. But OSU, WWU, and the State Employment Relations Board or SERB, must first come to an agreement that a vote should be made, and the university hasn’t consented to this either.

AFSCME Ohio Council 8 told the Free Press that three months is long enough for any employer to recognize a union or allow a vote, and it recently issued a petition demanding OSU “either voluntarily recognize the employee union or put forward a consent agreement calling for a free and fair union election.” The petition has garnered nearly 1,200 signatures as of this week.

In an emailed statement to the Free Press, OSU spokesperson Ben Johnson says they are not stalling, and that “Ohio State supports Wexner Center for the Arts employees’ right to vote on whether they wish to be represented by a union or not.”

“We expect an election will be scheduled once the State Employment Relations Board determines the appropriate positions to be included in a bargaining unit,” stated Johnson. “Wex Workers United filed a petition for representation election, not a petition for voluntary recognition.”

WWU representatives told the Free Press that OSU has retained the local law firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur “to scrutinize our filing and whittle down the amount of folks who can be in the union” – a common tactic used by anti-union law firms so to chip away at workers’ solidarity.

Porter Wright Morris & Arthur also represented former President Trump in a suit challenging Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results. The firm eventually withdrew from the suit.

Besides nearly flirting with Trump so to soothe his delusions, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, as stated on its website, offers legal services to employers that “make union organizing less likely” and “to recognize and react appropriately to early signs of organizing” (see above picture).

“Porter Wright Morris & Arthur has served as the university’s outside counsel for numerous human resources matters, including but not limited to Wex Workers United’s petition for representation election,” stated Johnson.

WWU representatives responded, saying, “the delay tactics being used by the law firm are a form of union busting as are the attempts by OSU and Porter Wright Morris & Arthur to challenge the petition we filed.”

WWU continued, “Though OSU may claim that hiring Porter Wright Morris & Arthur is not out of the ordinary – the work this firm has engaged in clearly shows otherwise – boasting on their website about their extensive work in union avoidance and anti-collective bargaining campaigns.

We believe that OSU and the Wexner Center are simply pushing the can down the road hoping our intent to organize and drive will diminish. We would like to make it clear that Wex employees are committed to organizing and seeing real change at our workplace.”

Both Wex Workers United and Starbucks United are fighting for the respect many “passion workers” have long been denied. One group serves (expensive) coffee and loves their customers, while the other believes in the mission of an art institution and how it serves the community

“There’s this narrative that we should be grateful to have a job in the arts at all. This is sort of a myth that a lot of cultural organizations [adhere to],” said WWU organizer and Wex worker Jo Snyder. “But passion can’t pay my bills. Full disclosure, I’m living paycheck to paycheck. There’s a really wide range of people who work these jobs, and at the end of the day, it is a job.”

Wex Workers United is facing off against a behemoth just like Starbucks United, although on a massively different scale. The CEO Of Starbucks is worth $4 billion while OSU is king of Central Ohio.

Without a doubt, both Starbucks and OSU are iconic institutions which have furthered their brand by pushing “social justice” and “progressive” values. Yet when it comes to their own workers, they apparently turn a cold shoulder towards unionization, which suggests these so-called progressive institutions are, like so many others, all about the bottom line.

Indeed, OSU privatized its parking in 2012, which suddenly made over 100 workers non-OSU employees. A decade later the jury is still out on whether CampusParc has saved OSU tens-of-millions it promised it would.

WWU organizer and Wexner Center worker Matt Reber says, “we want the Wexner Center to be what it says they are.”

“We are part of an institution that says they are invested in social justice, and things like that, and we want to amplify that from our end and make sure that happens,” said Reber.