CFL News
January 26, 2012

Indiana is the latest battleground over organized labor laws

Indiana Right to Work bill threatens to undermine workers' ability to bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and safety conditions

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Andy Grimm

Lawmakers on Wednesday all but guaranteed Indiana will become the first Midwest, industrial state to limit the ability of labor unions to collect dues, but opponents are not giving up and plan to leverage next week's Super Bowl here to amplify the debate.

The Indiana Right to Work bill makes it illegal for union membership to be required or for unions to collect dues from nonmembers. Union leaders say the measures will hobble their ability to bargain for better wages, but business interests said they are key to attracting new investment to the state.

Labor union members packed the Indiana Capitol this week, first to watch a partisan debate over the legislation, then to show support for Democratic lawmakers who staged a walkout to stall it. The state's debate was the latest battle between economic ideologies defined by the national tea party and Occupy movements.

On Wednesday, Democrats ended their boycott and the House voted 54-44 to pass the bill. The legislation moves to the state Senate, which has approved a version of the bill, before it goes to the desk of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is certain to sign it into law.

"This isn't over for us," said Jeff Harris, spokesman for the Indiana State AFL-CIO. "This is only halftime."

It could, in fact, be the kickoff of similar drives in Indiana's more heavily unionized neighboring states, such as Michigan and Ohio.

Fights over labor rights have polarized the statehouses in Wisconsin and Ohio, manufacturing-belt states where Republican governors have legislative majorities and a strong belief that the 2010 election cycle gave them a mandate to pursue a conservative, small-government agenda.

Indiana is the most conservative of Rust Belt states, and one where residents identify more strongly with those in southern and western states where right-to-work laws have been in place, in some cases, since the 1950s.

Daniels and other backers have said in televised ads that union limitations are key to attracting new business to the state — likely drawing investment away from Illinois and other union strongholds that border Indiana. Union leaders say the rules weaken unions' bargaining power and will force down wages for workers.

The steel mills that line the south shore of Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana employ thousands of union workers, many of whom live in Chicago and the south suburbs. Those workers will continue to work under the terms of their union contracts but could opt out of paying their union dues when the new law takes effect.

"This isn't always a partisan issue like it has become in Indiana," said Rep. Jerry Torr, a Republican who authored the bill and noted that Democratic lawmakers backed right-to-work laws when the issue last was a hot-button in the late 1990s.

"It's simple. There are employers that won't even look at (a state) when they are considering where to locate if you don't have right to work," Torr said.

On Tuesday, Daniels gave the rebuttal to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, and unions began airing ads in Indiana immediately afterward.

The battle over public sector unions in Wisconsin and Ohio in 2011 has been a rallying point for labor interests, with millions of dollars coming from conservative groups and national unions.

Both sides in Indiana have claimed their efforts are homegrown but that outside forces are driving their opponent's agenda. Republicans say protests have been beefed up with out-of-state union members. Democrats note that Daniels' televised ads touting the need for the legislation have been paid for by the Indiana Opportunity Fund, a private corporation chartered by conservative activist James Bopp, of Terre Haute, Ind.

Money is likely to pour into Indiana if the fight draws on, just as it did when Republican Gov. Scott Walker came into office in Wisconsin and pushed successfully for legislation to bar collective bargaining rights for state workers and when similar legislation began working through the Ohio legislature, said Paul Mishler, a labor studies professor at Indiana University-South Bend.

"This is a national issue, just as you saw with Wisconsin and Ohio," Mishler said. "On both sides (of the issue) you really energize your base, and this is an election year."

Other Midwest states are sure to be watching Indiana, Mishler said.

Despite a strong manufacturing base — steel mills in northwest Indiana and auto plants scattered across the central part of the state — Hoosiers pride themselves on a rural character more common to the 22 Southern and Western states where right-to-work is the law. The last state to approve such laws was Oklahoma in 2001.

In Indiana, autoworkers and steel workers might proudly put union bumper stickers on their vehicles but vote for Republican candidates, Mishler said.

"Indiana has an odd politics to it," Mishler said. "It is fundamentally a Republican state, but with a very, very large organized workforce.

"And unlike in, say, Chicago, where union members can be counted on to vote almost exclusively Democratic, in Indiana you have a fairly large working class that is pretty evenly divided."

Some 11 percent of Indiana's workforce is unionized, ranking it among the top half of all states. It is a smaller figure than in neighboring states such as Michigan (16 percent), Illinois (15.5) or Ohio (13). Though Daniels has promoted job growth in the state — including a nonunion Honda factory that opened in 2008 — the state's unemployment rate of 8.7 is slightly higher than the nation as a whole.

In a report released this week, the Indiana Business Research Institute, based at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, found the state did well at attracting outside investment even during the recession, but author Timothy Slaper admits the figures will do little to inform the debate in Indianapolis.

"The side that is against right-to-work will say: 'We don't need it. We're doing fine,'" Slaper said. "Those on the side of right-to-work will say, 'We could have done much better.'

"The research that has been done out there is ambiguous, unless it's been paid for by one side or the other. When the data isn't overwhelming, it becomes more of an ideological debate."

With far less fanfare, Daniels ended collective bargaining for state employees immediately after he took office in 2004. Unlike Wisconsin, where state employee bargaining rights were subject to a vote in the legislature, union recognition in Indiana is determined solely by the governor.

Right-to-work laws were a national crusade in the 1950s as well, and Republican-led Indiana adopted a version of the law in 1957. When Democrats regained control of the legislature eight years later, the law was repealed.

Teamster Jeff Combs scowled this week while the right-to-work debate raged in the Capitol. He said his members were taking delivery of several hundred T-shirts that read "Occupy Super Bowl."

"I can't give away what the plan is," said Combs, who hinted that union workers might engage in work slowdowns as the Super Bowl approaches, despite no-strike clauses in their contracts. "We've got to do something."

Harris, of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, noted similar legislation seemed certain to pass last year until House Democrats staged an unprecedented 34-day walkout.

"We're not giving up," he said.

agrimm@tribune.com

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