Why Indiana GOP wants to attack labor unions, despite Midwest backlash

Indiana failed to pass a law to curtail the rights of labor unions this year. Key lawmakers say they’ll try again, even though voters have struck out against similar laws in Ohio and Wisconsin.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted November 21, 2011 at 7:26 pm EST

Chicago – Ignoring the public backlash against recent antiunion laws in Wisconsin and Ohio, the Indiana Legislature is poised to take up new bills next year that could practically eviscerate union power in the state.

Lawmakers plan to introduce bills in both the House and Senate that would make Indiana a so-called “right to work” state. In short, the bills would allow workers to refuse to join a union without having to pay a fee.

Twenty-two states, mostly in the South and interior West, already have right-to-work laws. Indiana tried to join their ranks this year, but when a House committee passed a right-to-work bill on a party-line vote in late February, Democrats walked out, fleeing to Illinois for five weeks. The bill was later removed by Republicans to lure Democrats back to the state.

The issue is resurfacing this week with the announcement by House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) and Senate President Pro Tempore David Long (R) that they plan to make the bill a top priority in next year’s legislative session, which begins Jan. 4. They say the bill is a way to make Indiana friendlier for job creation and to give workers a choice. Unions say the bill is a smokescreen for lowering wages and weakening union strength.

In speaking to reporters Monday, Representative Bosma said the proposed bill “means back to work for the unemployed. This is America, Hoosiers deserve this freedom.”

Legislation viewed as hostile to unions swept through the Midwest this year, starting with a Wisconsin law that stripped many public unions of their collective-bargaining rights. The law is at the center of a current petition drive to recall Gov. Scott Walker (R), who signed the bill into law in March.

Earlier this month, Ohio voters overturned a similar bill signed by Gov. John Kasich (R), which limited collective bargaining, prohibited striking, and provided management with the final say on topics such as health insurance.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) largely stayed out of the debate over the union issue in Indiana last year, presumably, some felt, because he was weighing a decision about whether or not to run for president.

However, his past actions suggest he might view the bill favorably.

Through an executive order, he stripped collective-bargaining rights for public employees in his first year in office, and he recently recorded robocalls in support of the Ohio law before voters repealed it.

The fact that Governor Daniels “may actively campaign on behalf of the bill” would be the only major change between next year and this year, says Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center on Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

“If you ask people whether or not it will pass – with Republican having the considerable majority in both the House and Senate – the smart money is on passage,” Mr. Downs says.

Indiana law is written so a quorum is needed for every vote, no matter if it involves spending money or not. That means that Indiana Republicans would once again be powerless if Democrats flee the state to prevent a vote. Democrat leaders are being tight-lipped on whether that is a consideration for next year.

Unlike the union battles in Ohio and Wisconsin, Indiana witnessed fewer street protests and fundraising drives this year, suggesting that forces outside the state are not as invested in this battle. Indiana is “not viewed as a swing state in presidential elections and lacks the political infrastructure” that others have, says Downs.

“Some would say, ‘if you can’t get it done in Indiana’ – which is not exactly a pro-union state – ‘how are you going to get it done in states that are more evenly divided?’ ” says Downs.

A Republican-led committee dedicated to studying right-to-work legislation held hearings throughout the summer and released a 2,000-word report recommending that lawmakers approve the bill. Democrats said they plan to release their own report soon.

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