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It’s a tough time for arts funding around the nation. Kansas, as just one example, just cut all its state support. It’s a different story in the Cleveland area, though. That region has found a unique way to fund the arts, and it’s paying off big.

It’s made residents like Samantha Kane arts patrons of sorts. She says she smokes about two or three packs of cigarettes a week. We find her waiting at a bus stop with a stroller in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Since 2006, each cigarette she smokes contributes a penny and a half to Cuyahoga County’s arts organizations.

“I love that it goes to something instead of road work, or you know, padding congressmen’s pockets,” Kane says.

Little Italy, Cleveland (Benjamin Chodroff/Flickr)

This county cigarette tax really adds up. The group that administers the money is doling out $15 million this year alone. That’s enough to catapult the Cleveland area to among the top public funders for the arts in the nation—many times more than what most states contribute.

“I tell people: you don’t have to smoke ‘em, just buy them,” says Cindy Einhouse, CEO of the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

It puts on shows, teaches dance and music, and provides summer camps for kids.

Einhouse says the recession hit her organization hard. The Beck Center almost closed its doors in 2009. A wave of private donations helped, but she’s grateful for this county tax.

“I was saying thank goodness for the county arts and culture grant,” she says, adding that the Beck Center, like other arts organizations, might have gone under without the tax money.

Cuyahoga Arts and Culture is the group that doles out the grants from the cigarette tax.

Since 2007, CAC says it’s given nearly $65 million to 150 arts organizations. They range from the renowned Cleveland Orchestra down to small youth theater groups, and—full disclosure—public broadcasting.

There’s another reason arts groups love this money. These days, many foundations generally just give money for specific projects. Not so with the CAC. Karen Knowlton of the Cleveland International Piano Competition says she can use the tax money for anything.

“It goes to the kind of unglamorous things,” Knowlton says. “Like: paying the rent, meeting payroll, paying for postage, paying for telephone, paying for supplies.

Dan Bobkoff

The Beck Center almost went under in the recession.

So, how did Cuyahoga County go from almost no public arts funding to some of the highest in the nation?  Megan Van Voorhis was present at the creation.

“It took us ten years,” says Megan Van Voorhis, who was present at the creation. “We remind people each time we have the conversation that it took us 10 years to get this.”

Van Voorhis is with the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, which led the charge for public funding of the arts in Cuyahoga County. First, backers tried a property tax increase in 2004. Voters didn’t like that idea, so they had to find something else.

“We looked at things like real estate transfer fees. We looked at boats. We looked at cell phones,” she says.

In the end, cigarettes were the winner. In 2006, voters approved the tax with wide margins. Republican Ohio State Senator Bill Seitz says there’s an old saying for this kind of thing. “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”

Seitz is a smoker himself. He thinks local taxes will drive people to buy cigarettes out of state. That would put the state’s cigarette tax revenue at risk.  And, he thinks this tax for the arts is regressive: punishing poor smokers for the benefit of rich arts-goers. Supporters reject that saying the whole community gains. But Seitz points out another irony of all this.

“Out of one side of their mouth [lawmakers are] preaching a smoking cessation message,” he says. “But out of the other side of their mouth, they’re saying, gee I hope everybody does not listen or we’d be in a heap of trouble and have to raise other taxes.”

Karen Gahl-Mills is the executive director of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. Her message can be a little awkward.

“My message will be: don’t smoke! It’s not good for you!” she says. “However, if you choose to do it, we have a good thing with the revenue that is generated and we can make it benefit everybody.”

Gahl-Mills acknowledges that smoking rates are not going up. CAC has projected declining cigarette sales from the start. Arts funding peaked in 2008 at around $20 million and she expects it to decline to about $11 million by 2016.

And, unless voters re-authorize it, 2016 also happens to be the year this tax ends. As proponents gear up for the next ballot push, it’s too early to say if cigarettes alone will be enough the next time around.

Adee Braun

Workers in Marshall, Michigan are still cleaning up an oil spill from last summer.

Green energy is often said to be the future of the Midwest economy. But old fashioned fossil fuels could be having a bigger effect on the region’s jobs and corporate bottom lines.

This is not conventional oil, though. It’s a thick, tar-like crude from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. It’s sent here by pipelines, many which cross our rivers and the Great Lakes, and that has some worrying about a bigger risk to the region.


You don’t have to tell Detroiters like Jeff Collins that jobs are hard to come by in that city. “I have been unemployed really since October ’07,” he says.

Adee Braun

Jeff Collins

He’s a construction worker, one of the worst-hit industries in perhaps the worst-hit city.

On a recent Friday morning, Collins and about 50 other Detroit electrical workers are milling about the basement of their union hall. They wait for their names to be called and hope to land something.

There are eight openings this day at Detroit’s expanding Marathon oil refinery. The list of guys hoping for work there is 1700 long.

“Well I’m too far back on the book, I probably won’t get that,” Collins says. He says he’s so far back, he’s just there for male bonding.

More stories of Detroit’s construction workers hoping for work.

A few miles away, that Marathon refinery is a hulking complex of pipes and towers and concrete. And, it’s one of the biggest construction projects in Michigan.

Marathon Oil is spending $2.2 billion to expand and upgrade this refinery so it can process more of the sulfur-rich, tar-like crude that comes in by pipeline from the Canadian oil sands. About 1,300 construction workers will be on the job there by fall.

oilsands_Cleanup1 oilsands_Cleanup2 Oil can be still be seen in a creek near the Kalamazoo River Workers in Marshall, Michigan are still cleaning up an oil spill from last summer. Jeff Collins Ken Wesley with his job in hand. Ralph Dollhopf of the EPA Detroit's Marathon Refinery Detroit's Marathon Refinery. Marathon is upgrading the refinery to process more heavy crude from the Canadian oil sands. Marathon Refinery in Detroit Construction workers at the Detroit refinery. Crews use airboats because they have less impact on the river. Cleanup crews use "stingers" to stir up the submerged oil and bring it to the surface. Ralph Dollhopf surveys the Kalamazoo River today.

The oil industry says this is just one example of the Canadian oil sands creating jobs here, something it’s been promoting heavily in advertisements. One ad says the Canadian oil sands and the supporting infrastructure in the U.S. “could create more than 342,000 American jobs in the next four years.”

Peter Howard of the Canadian Energy Research Institute helped the industry come up with those numbers. He projects the oil sands to create 23,000 jobs a year in Illinois, 8000 in Michigan, and 11,000 in Ohio.

Howard’s numbers include everything from companies like Caterpillar that make the gargantuan trucks used in the oil sands, to food companies that feed the workers. And, there are all the refineries being converted to process the stuff. BP’s Toledo plant is supposed to start an upgrade soon. And, BP’s expanding Whiting, Indiana refinery near Chicago is already employing hundreds of construction workers.

After the expansions are done, it’s not exactly the bonanza promised in those ads. The oil companies say each refinery will create fewer than 100 new full time jobs.


The oil comes to the refineries by pipeline. Many are owned by a Canadian company called Enbridge.

Penny Miller had never heard of that company or its pipelines until last year. One day, she came home from a lunch and saw a sheen on the creek by her home. “The next thing I knew is the Enbridge people came up and said they’re trying to hunt this down,” Miller says. “Then, by the time I came home from work that night, it was really thick and really bad.”

A year ago this month, more than 800,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude spilled from an Enbridge pipeline by her house near the Kalamazoo River.

The day after the spill, Penny Miller’s dog died from the fumes. Nearby, workers are still cleaning up that spill.

Adee Braun

Oil can be still be seen in a creek near the Kalamazoo River

In one creek, they use rototillers to stir up the oil and bring it to the surface.

That’s because this crude from the oil sands is not like other crude.
For one thing, it sinks. That’s a reason this cleanup has already cost more than half a billion dollars, and it’s still going.

“A year ago, there was heavy oil here from bank to bank,” says Ralph Dollhopf of the Environmental Protection Agency, as we go on an airboat ride to survey the Kalamazoo River today.

It’s a lot cleaner, but there’s more work to do before kayakers and others who use the river can return.

We get to two airboats parked near the edge of the river. Dollhopf asks the workers how it’s going as they stick long poles called “stingers” into the water.

A look at the oil spill and the cleanup nearly a year after the Kalamazoo River spill: 

Kalamazoo River: One Year After the Spill from WBEZ on Vimeo.


“The idea is to bring the submerged oil up to the top where they can recover it,” Dollhopf explains.

Not only did the oil sink, but the EPA says this oil sands crude posed health risks unlike more conventional oil.

Benzene and other volatile organics were released into the air. Even today, air quality monitors are out at each cleanup site.

Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the oil sands are partly to blame for this spill. He says this heavy crude is full of acids and sulfur. And, it travels at a higher temperature and pressure than the conventional crude that used to be the mainstay of these aging pipes. That makes cracks and spills more likely.

“You’re basically sandblasting the pipelines from inside the pipe,” Mogerman says.

The industry contends there is no significant difference between regular and oil sands crude.

Peter Howard of the Canadian Energy Research Institute says pipeline companies go out of their way to minimize the risk of spills.

“When you think about the number of barrels of crude that’s shipped around the United States on a daily basis versus the number of spills in the last ten years, it’s just a finite number,” Howard says.

Enbridge, though, has had at least five other spills in the US in the last decade, according to Reuters. During that time, the amount of crude from the oil sands being piped from Canada has increased dramatically.

Mogerman of the NRDC says that’s putting this region’s rivers and lakes at risk. He points to areas around Lake Superior, the southern end of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie as vulnerabilities.

“Additionally, you have issues where the pipelines actually run underneath Lake St Clair or the St Clair River in Southeast Michigan, and awfully close to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore,” he says.

But that’s not front of mind at the union hall back in Detroit.

Adee Braun

Ken Wesley with his job in hand.

Ken Wesley walks out of the office with a job slip in his hand. He had been traveling the country for work. Now, he can work in Detroit, his home.

“Going to have a good summer,” he says, smiling. “Family and kids: haven’t seen them in about eight months.”

And, with the Midwest eager to put guys like Ken Wesley back to work, it’s easy see why cities embrace pipelines and refinery expansions, even if the oil sands crude could be putting our waterways and lakes in peril.


Produced with WBEZ’s Front and Center project. 

Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings at the store Music Saves, as he celebrates the release of his new album. (Photo by Dan Bobkoff)


Cleveland coined the term Rock and Roll. People still talk about Detroit and Motown. And, Chicago is known for the Blues. Yet, despite evidence that music can revitalize rust belt cities, that it can raise property values, and make these places more attractive to workers and companies, the music industry doesn’t seem to be a priority here.

“ Maybe the first two years we were open, we were miraculously making money,” says Cindy Barber, co-founder of the Beachland Ballroom, one of Cleveland’s top venues—and few venues—for live music. It’s an intimate place: the kind where you feel like you’re up close with the music. Yet, Barber just can’t make any money. She’s thinking of turning the Beachland into a nonprofit.

“You go to Beachland Ballroom, every one of those shows should sell out,” says David Spero. He’s been a producer, manager, and in the 70s, was one of the pioneering Cleveland DJs who introduced the nation to performers like David Bowie. Back then, the industry here was alive.

David Spero (Photo by Dan Bobkoff)

“Every label was represented here: Columbia, Atlantic, Warner Brothers, Capital, RCA,” Spero says.

It soon got too big and technology changed, and Cleveland lost its place as kingmaker for rock.

Today, Cleveland bands have to find labels and booking agents elsewhere.

About two years ago, the Cleveland band Cloud Nothings was nothing more than the tinkerings of Dylan Baldi, who was more interested in music than college.

“I’d just record songs all the time like when I wasn’t in class, or instead of going to class,” Baldi says.

He put his basement recordings on the internet and to his amazement, found himself booked with a show in Brooklyn and record deals with labels in DC and the UK. He had been playing all the instruments himself and had to scramble to find band mates. Now, he’s just getting used to seeing his name in the music press. And, Baldi says they always mention his hometown.

“They definitely write about that because it’s such a strange thing for a band people know about to be from Cleveland, which is too bad because there are a lot of good bands here,” he says.

One winter day, he was at the Beachland Ballroom celebrating the release of the band’s self-titled album.

There’s a sense that Cleveland and the Midwest are doing a poor job supporting their music industry, and a poor job benefiting from it. Richard Florida is an academic and the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, and he says these post-industrial cities have a lot of assets that could create vibrant music scenes, but it can’t just happen on its own.

“So the first thing we can do in Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and Detroit, and Milwaukee, and Chicago, is to create real incubation assistance for young bands. I think the band is a better example of a start-up company than these high tech garage start-ups,” Florida says.

He recommends marketing assistance, help with business planning. Cities should make it easier for musicians: provide cheap housing and create incentives like Austin did.

And, the effects can be huge. Austin estimates its music industry contributes more than $600 million to its economy. A Cleveland nonprofit is currently studying how much the music business means here. Michigan has tax breaks for the music business but hasn’t bothered to promote them.

And, Chicago’s Music Commission did its own economic study and found it had the third biggest industry in the country, but no one knew it. But its new Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, wants to change that with his plan for Uptown Music District.

“Where arts and culture can be the engines of economic growth,” Rahm said.

Maybe Chicago, then, will become the model for this region.





Union members rally at the Ohio Statehouse for a vote on SB 5. Photo courtesy of OPR.


You may have heard about that controversial bill in Ohio that limits public workers’ collective bargaining rights. It was signed into law Thursday night by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and it’s one of several new laws affecting unions that have popped up in our region. Dan Bobkoff and Ida Lieszkovszky of the Changing Gears team wanted to get beyond the rhetoric and answer why some of these provisions are in Senate Bill 5 in the first place.




First, a quick review of what this new law does.

  • It does not get rid of union negotiations completely, but it limits them. Union members will no longer be able to negotiate for benefits.
  • It also ditches binding arbitration.
  • It makes striking by union members illegal.
  • It puts a greater emphasis on merit versus seniority when it comes to promotions.

Whether you agree or disagree with all that, the debate has been contentious.

Union members see the issue as one that could “break the backs” of unions and “take away the voice of the people.” Ohio Senator Shannon Jones, who wrote the bill, says, ”Most importantly, it is not an attack on the middle class.”

Protestors listen to Democratic lawmakers following the passage of SB 5 in the Ohio House. Photo courtesy of OPR.

But there are other views. Mike Bell has been the mayor of Toledo for a little over a year now.
He said, “There’s a lot of rhetoric to this. but for me, I’m just looking for some basic things. I’m not trying to hurt anybody.”

Bell is an independent. He says he used to be a firefighter: “I was not only a firefighter. I was a laid off firefighter. I was the fire chief. I was the state fire marshall. And, now I’m the mayor.”

Basically, he’s been on all sides of the table. When he took office, the city had no money, but it had expensive contracts with its police unions that he couldn’t change. There were restrictions that said the city could not assign a police officer to a different shift. That’s what his predecessor tried to do; reassign police to the afternoon or night shift. Now the city is facing a $500,000 fine for breach of contract.

Bell says that controversy didn’t leave the mayor with many options. “The only solution that the chief would have had was to leave those shifts blank–meaning we wouldn’t have a third shift or a partial second shift.” Alternatively, he could “call back the 75 police officers who were laid off, which created a financial problem.”

Democratic Representative Robert Hagan speaks to union member after the protest. Photo courtesy of OPR.

Under the old rules, Bell said it’s a no-win situation. He’s not anti-union and does not love everything in Senate Bill 5, but he is grateful the law allows him to “push a reset button.”

With Senate Bill 5 becoming law, he would be able to throw out a contract when the city is in a financial crisis. When Bell was a laid off firefighter many years ago, he said he learned it’s better to take some cuts in benefits or pay than lose your job. And, he’s more than happy to negotiate a better contract for the public workers when the city sees better times.

And then there’s Hugh Quill. He is all for taking health care benefits off the negotiating table completely. He says; “taxpayers really don’t care how we get the best price with the best plan.”

Quill is a Democrat who does consulting work for the public sector. He does not support all of what makes up Senate Bill 5. However, he thinks changes to public workers’ health care is a good thing. He said, “It’s a hugely volatile item in the budget of any local government, of any school, of any college and university.”

Under the new law, all public workers are getting the same health benefits, instead of the old system in which every school district and police department would bargain for its own plan. Quill says bargaining on behalf of 50,000 people gives the state more leverage to get a good deal with health care companies than bargaining for a local union of perhaps 500 people.

Senate Bill 5 also requires public employees to contribute at least 15 percent of their health care plans. Now, many pay little or nothing.

We also talked to Julie Schafer, the School Board President for the Copley-Fairlawn school district about 45 minutes south of Cleveland. She says unions will sometimes bully school boards by threatening to go on strike. But she says this bill would “give more freedom to negotiations and that’s really what’s necessary. There needs to be more latitude to be able to do what’s in the best interests of students and taxpayers.”

Schafer says she is skeptical this bill will have a long life after being signed by Ohio Governor John Kasich. Unions are already gathering signatures to challenge the bill. They hope to get enough to put a referendum on the ballot this November. Both sides are already campaigning.


All of this sounds very similar to what happened in 1958, when Republicans tried to make Ohio a right-to-work state, but then opponents put it on the ballot, where it was defeated.

Greg Saltzman, a professor at Albion College in Michigan and an expert on the region’s labor history. says the same might take place today. “Certainly, it’s a high risk strategy.”

Saltzman says that Ohio has been on a kind of see-saw when it comes to public sector union rights. Strikes were banned in 1947, except that there were actually more strikes when they were technically illegal. Then in 1983, public sector unions officially got the right to collectively bargain and strike. The number of strikes dropped. .

Professor Saltzman says we’re going through an interesting period. “Wisconsin, Ohio and other states that are taking away bargaining rights that have already been granted, that’s really quite unusual.”

He says the last time this happened on a national basis was back in 1947. Now this issue is spreading across the region, and the country.


Timeline by Ida Lieszkovszky.

Zoning is the DNA of a community: it controls how you live, shop, and work.  After nearly a century of many cities separating those uses, now, they’re going back to the future: trying to recreate an old way of life. Streetsboro, Ohio is one such place. Drive down its main commercial district and it has nearly every chain store you can imagine: A Walmart and a Target, a Lowes and a Home Depot.


Streetsboro's big box stores are set way back from the street. The city wants to change that with new zoning. (Photo: Dan Bobkoff)

Some call it sprawl. Streetsboro calls it economic development. This six-lane strip of big box shopping centers has served this city well since its explosive growth started in the 1960s. It just doesn’t look like a traditional town.


The town center is an intersection with a grassy knoll on one side. But Jeff Pritchard is in charge of planning there now and he’s aiming for a future Streetsboro that would look very different. These big box stores could eventually be replaced by attractive housing and shops. The way towns and cities used to be.


“A place where they can walk to a corner store, maybe live above a store, says Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “And, those kinds of things, that’s illegal in America today in so many of our communities. “


Illegal because of zoning.  In many cities and towns, zoning codes don’t allow living and working in the same place. And, when zoning spread across the country in the 1920s and 30s, that was considered a good thing.


“ You didn’t want to have a slaughter house next to a residential apartment,” Flint says.


But those issues aren’t as big a deal anymore. As the Great Lakes region reinvents itself, there’s a growing feeling among planners and thinkers that much of the public wants to spend less time in their cars. They point to rising gas prices, and think fewer people will want the single family home separated from everything else in their lives. So, cities as diverse as Peoria with its historic downtown, and Pontiac, Michigan, with its post-industrial woes are joining Streetsboro in rethinking their zoning.

Jeff Pritchard (Photo: Dan Bobkoff)


The change could be dramatic: something called form-based code. In his Streetboro planning office, Pritchard shows the city’s current colorful zoning map: purple for industry, yellow for homes, pink for those big box stores.






Streetsboro's Current Zoning Map


But there’s no overlap, no mingling of uses. Form-based code is the opposite. It encourages mixing. The city controls how a building looks and operates: say, three stories high, up against the curb, parking in the back. But it doesn’t dictate the use. So, it could be housing and shops in the same building.


How does this work in the real world? A decade ago, Miami, Florida had a mess of buildings, but some streets had few shops at street level. So, city planner Ana Gelabert-Sanchez pushed for parts of the city to try form-based code.  She says the zoning now allows for the kinds of streets more residents want to live and walk on.


“Younger people started moving into downtown because they wanted to live close by,” she says. “They wanted to work close by. So, it’s happening. And, what I think is great is that it’s happening at every age.”


But is this a life everyone wants? Critics say this is government dictating how people should live and that there isn’t enough evidence that a broad swath of the population really yearns to return to dense, urban areas.


“I sort of chuckle at those sorts of arguments,” says Lolita Buckner Inniss of the Cleveland Marshall College of Law. She says form-based code, and the larger so-called New Urbanist movement, is based on a nostalgic notion of cities. For many people, they had no choice but to live in a dense neighborhood.


“That wasn’t necessarily something that they sought or that was beneficial,” Inniss says.  “That was how they lived. Many of those people, when they got the opportunity, looked for less density, more fresh air.”


That’s not stopping Streetsboro officials from trying to turn a part of this exurb into more of a traditional town. It will likely take years or decades before the changes are noticeable. Standing in front of Walmart, Sean Smetak and Becky Slattery had a hard time imagining this strip having sidewalks and people walking.


“No, no, it’s too busy, definitely too busy,” they said.


But, they have no love for the way it looks now.




Associated Press photo

A big question has come up in the debate over Wisconsin’s public sector employees. Do they — and other government employees — get a better deal than private sector workers?

Dan Bobkoff of Changing Gears took a look at the subject this week for NPR’s All Things Considered. There are rallies planned this weekend are planned in all 50 state capitals in support of Wisconsin’s employees, even as the state legislature gets closer to a vote that would strip them of collective bargaining rights.

Here’s what Dan reported.


At the heart of Republican rhetoric in Wisconsin, as well as in Ohio and Indiana, is a contention about finances. The Republicans say public-sector workers are overcompensated compared to private-sector workers. But is that true?

Dan Bobkoff is with the reporting project Changing Gears, about the industrial Midwest, and he explains it depends on whom you ask.

DAN BOBKOFF: Okay, just to be clear, were not talking here just about wages, but retirement, healthcare and other benefits. Gary Chaison is a labor relations professor at Clark University.

Professor GARY CHAISON (Labor Relations, Clark University): A large part of what were hearing out of Wisconsin now is about shared sacrifice and equality of sacrifice, the feeling that the public-sector workers unions havent really done their share.

BOBKOFF: Call it jealousy or resentment. Many think that those who work for the government get too generous a deal. With high unemployments and years of recession, its governors and legislatures who now have the political capital to try to seek concessions.

But is it true that many government workers have a cushy gig? On one side, there are researchers like Jeffery Keefe of Rutgers University who says when you add up all the pay and retirement plans and other benefits, public sector workers are…

Mr. JEFFREY KEEFE (Rutgers University): For the most part paid at market or slightly below market.

BOBKOFF: Precisely 3.7 percent less by his calculation. But these are just averages because there are a lot of jobs in government that just dont exist in the private sector, like say, prison warden. So apples-to-apples comparisons arent easy.

And, people like E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute disagree with Keiths claim.

Mr. E.J. McMAHON (Manhattan Institute): I think the research is pretty clear that total compensation in the public sector is greater than total compensation in the private sector.

BOBKOFF: McMahon says a guaranteed pension is a whole lot better than a risky 401k. Public sector workers also tend to get much cheaper and better health plans, even in retirement. That leads many government workers to retire earlier, which has another effect on these comparisons: It drives down average public-sector salaries as younger workers replace the retirees.

Of course, theres also more job security in government. Its hard to put a dollar figure on this kind of intangible, but Jeffrey Keefe says its often a tradeoff.

Mr. KEEFE: Yeah, job security has some benefit to it. But at the other time, you have to work in a large, bureaucratic organization, which is probably a negative.

BOBKOFF: Union membership in America has been declining for years, especially in the private sector. Today, about 36 percent of the public sector is organized versus under seven percent in the corporate world. That varies wildly across the country, though.

According to Professor Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University, nearly half of Wisconsin and Ohios public-sector workers are in a union. Now, compare that to a state like North Carolina where that number is under 10 percent.

Donald Grimes of the University of Michigan says from 2000 to 2009, public-sector compensation went up about 42 percent versus 32 percent in the private sector. But there was a surprise.

Mr. DONALD GRIMES (University of Michigan): Its not particularly pronounced for Wisconsin or Ohio or Indiana, at least among Great Lakes states. Their wages and benefits have not gone up that much.

BOBKOFF: So, the states that are ground zero now for this battle over unions and compensation buck the national trend. Private-sector salaries actually rose more in Wisconsin than government pay.

In Ohio, there wasnt much difference between public and private compensation over that period. But Grimes says no matter what numbers you believe or what study you cite, taxes paid by private-sector workers just cant support all these pensions and retiree health plans.

Mr. GRIMES: In some sense, it almost doesnt matter if youre getting paid more or less than you deserve. If theres just no money there, youre going to get paid less.

BOBKOFF: And thats one reason why everything is bubbling over now.

For NPR News, Im Dan Bobkoff.

President Obama and some of his top cabinet officials were at Cleveland State University Tuesday. The forum featured more than 100 local companies, and was billed as a place for small business owners to speak their mind.


Download audio file (Obama_2min.mp3)

“This is a working session, not a photo op,” Mr. Obama said.

He was flanked by big names from his administration including treasury secretary Tim Geithner and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and after the president’s opening remarks, he and his team broke into small groups to hear what Ohio businesses feel they need to succeed. And, one theme quickly emerged: they need cash.

In closing remarks to the forum, Mr. Obama said he heard their concerns: about capital, about job retraining, and tax breaks for early stage investing in new companies.

President Obama at Cleveland State

Ron Weinberg is a partner in a company that buys and operates small firms. He says he was impressed with the more than half dozen administration officials who came to the forum, but he says many business leaders felt job training should stem from the private sector.

“The initiatives for workforce development, rather than being pushed into the economy, should be pulled out of the private sector,” Weinberg said. “The private sector knows what they’re doing. If you accept they’re going to create 2/3 of jobs, you want to make sure the training and the initiatives match what’s really needed.”

The President had some nice words for this community. He said he came here because it’s a model for the nation.

“You’ve been working to reinvent the Rustbelt as the Tech Belt,” he said. “So you have fiber optic cables that now run beneath Cleveland streets, like the railroads and highways of the 21st century, drawing businesses to move downtown.”

But while the President spent much of his day listening to businesses in Cleveland, he did not mention the massive protests over union rights in many of the region’s state capitals.

The Midwest is the birthplace of the modern industrial union. The United Auto Workers formed in Detroit. AFSCME, the union representing many government workers, got its start in Madison, Wisconsin. Now, Madison and other Midwest cities have become the center of the fight over public employee unions. Big protests are planned Tuesday in state capitals.

Lisa Schmelz, teacher (Photo: Chip Mitchell)

In both Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican-led legislatures are pushing bills that would strip unions of much of their negotiating power. Wisconsin teacher Lisa Schmelz told a crowd Sunday that this is not about public workers taking concessions. They’ve already agreed to the eight percent cut in pay and benefits. “I have paid for health insurance in a previous occupation, and I’m willing to pay for it again,” she said. “But I’m not willing to give up collective bargaining!”


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Republican Governor Scott Walker’s plan would strip most public employees of collective bargaining on everything but pay. That means when it comes to health benefits or work conditions or anything else up for discussion, power would shift from unions to management. A majority of workers would also have to re-authorize the union every year and it would be harder for unions to collect dues. That’s what the protesters consider union-busting.

A Wisconsin protester Sunday (photo: Chip Mitchell)

Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich is pushing a similar bill that would kill collective bargaining for all state employees, and limit it for local workers. Rob Scott of the Dayton Tea Party said it’s about fairness.

“There’s some public sector jobs, they only pay ten percent of their healthcare. In the private sector, there are some people paying 40%, 50%. We’re just asking for a little bit of give,” Scott said.

That resentment of public sector benefits is one reason leaders have more political capital to try to weaken unions.

Gary Chaison is a labor relations professor at Clark University. He says resentment has turned a taxpayer revolt into an anti-union revolt in the Midwest.

“Public sector workers didn’t have to worry about their operations being closed, seemed to have guaranteed jobs, and also were exerting political influence in the election process, and as a result, elected officials beholden to them,” he said.

And, there’s another factor. Union membership in this country is dwindling.

People came from all sides to Wisconsin Sunday. (photo: Chip Mitchell)

Nationally, 36 percent of public employees are union members. That’s far more than in the private sector where under seven percent are in a union. But those percentages vary wildly at the state level. Our region is a public union stronghold. According to Professor Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University, nearly half the public sector workers in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio are organized. Compare that to a state like North Carolina where it’s under 10 percent.

Research economist Donald Grimes of the University of Michigan found some surprising data to fuel the debate. He looked at average compensation for private and public workers from 2000 to 2009 and found that, yes, government salaries rose 10% more than those of private workers.

“But it’s not particularly pronounced for Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Indiana, at least in terms of Great Lakes states,” Grimes said. “Their wages and benefits have not gone up that much.”

So, the states that are ground zero for this battle over unions and compensation… buck the national trend. Private sector salaries actually rose more in Wisconsin than government pay. In Ohio, there wasn’t much difference between public and private compensation over that period. One caveat, these numbers may not include public sector promises like pensions that have been kicked down the road. And, states that added government workers can skew the numbers.

But for now, this fight has reunited a fractured labor movement. The Teamsters and the AFL-CIO are talking again after parting ways in 2005. But this unified front is in a battle for survival. If Wisconsin, Ohio, or any state passes limits on collective bargaining, anti-union legislation could sweep the nation. And, that could forever change Midwest power and politics.

If you missed our call-in special, “Power & Performance,” you can hear the show at our partner site: ideastream.

Below, you can also re-read our live chat on leadership in the Midwest. And, as always, use the comments section to tell us what you think.

What difference can a strong mayor make in the success of a city? What are the challenges our mayors and civic leaders face as we reinvent ourselves, and what are their plans to move forward?

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing

In a three-part series, Changing Gears looks at LEADERSHIP. Kate Davidson reports from Detroit on Mayor Dave Bing’s efforts to shrink and revitalize his struggling city. Dan Bobkoff reports from Cleveland, where a decidedly low-key mayor hopes to get results, and where county residents hope a new form of government will drive out corruption.

And Niala Boodhoo reports on the best-known mayor in the Great Lakes, Richard M. Daley, who is winding up 20 years in office.

Listen for our reports on partners Michigan Radio, WBEZ Chicago and ideastream Cleveland. Then on Thursday, come to the stations at 2 pm ET/1 pm CT for a call-in show produced by Sound of Ideas, a daily public affairs program from ideastream.

We’ll host a live chat here at and we hope you’ll post your thoughts on our Facebook page, too.