Indiana union bill: Even with Dems AWOL, lawmakers move closer to vote

Most Indiana Democrats have stayed away from the opening of the state House session out of protest for a bill they say is harmful to unions. Still, a committee held a hearing on the bill Friday.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer The Christian Science Monitor

posted January 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm EST

Chicago – Most Indiana Democrats were absent from the House floor in Indianapolis Friday, the third day of session they skipped to protest a proposed bill they say is harmful to unions.

But their absence Friday did not prevent a House committee from hearing more than five hours of testimony on the bill in question, which would ban negotiations between a union and company if workers are forced to pay fees for representation.

The committee ended the day by voting to send the bill to the House for a full vote, which Republicans say will happen next week. However, a quorum in that chamber is needed for the vote. Actions by Democrats suggest they are not worried about the fines, at $1,000 per day per lawmaker, that they face for not showing up.

Republicans will get their vote, but it’s a matter of when, says Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University in Indianapolis. Democrats are reluctant to give the Republican majority a victory because it may weaken union support.

“Unions are big contributors to the Democrats, and they feel with the decline of unionization, it would solidify Republicans. It simply comes down to that,” Mr. Vargus says.

The area’s diminished role in the steel and automotive industries has resulted in declining membership for Indiana unions. In 2010, the share of workers in Indiana who were unionized was 10.9 percent, lower than the national average of 11.9 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Last year, Indiana’s Republican leadership passed a collective-bargaining law that weakens the negotiating power of public unions in the state. The so-called right-to-work bill being contemplated this session would further clamp down on union activity.

Collective-bargaining legislation has been a bumpier road for neighboring states in the Midwest. For example, although Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) saw his collective-bargaining bill become law, it was not without a major fight that continues today with a recall effort to remove him from office. In Ohio, voters repudiated a collective-bargaining law in November. And in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is on record as saying it is not the time to push for such legislation, which he called “divisive” last month.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) are ignoring the potential backlash because they probably see it as an opportunity “to weaken the Democrats in the state” in an election year, says Vargus. “If they can limit union power and union strength, they will feel it will benefit their candidates,” he says of the state Republican leadership.

Friday’s testimony came from both sides of the issue. Keith Busse, a former chief executive officer of Steel Dynamics in Fort Wayne, Ind., described the bill as a “jobs boon” because it would convince companies outside the state that Indiana is business-friendly and prepared to help create job opportunities.

The NFL Players Association also weighed in, most likely because this year’s Super Bowl is set in Indianapolis on Feb. 5. In a statement, the organization, which is based in Washington D.C., criticized the legislation, calling it “a political ploy designed to destroy basic workers’ rights.” The statement added, “it’s the wrong priority for Indiana.”

Democrats say they will not return for a vote until Republicans agree to hold a series of public hearings around the state to justify the bill’s passage to voters. Republicans say they will probably start enforcing the $1,000 penalty next week.

That threat has already been enough for three Democrats to show up since Wednesday, which was the first day of the session. One of those Democrats, Vanessa Summers of Indianapolis, told reporters Thursday that she “cannot stand the fine” because she is a single mother with a son in college.

“I’m on the right side of history. So whatever happens is going to bless me,” Representative Summers said.

Online fundraising efforts via ActBlue, a Democratic political-action committee, launched Friday to help offset costs for the Indiana Democrats still staying away.

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