- David Johnson of Evansville, an organizer for the SheetMetal Worker's International Association, displayed an anti-right-to-work signduring a legislative committee hearing Wednesday at the Indiana Statehouse.
INDIANAPOLIS – The Democrat leader in the Indiana House said Wednesday that his members "will reserve the right to respond appropriately" if Republicans move forward with plans to push right-to-work legislation in the General Assembly's 2012 session.
Rep. Pat Bauer of South Bend – who led Democrats on a five-week boycott of legislative action over the issue earlier this year – said it appears majority House and Senate Republicans are "hell-bent on bringing this ruinous policy to Indiana."
But it's not clear Democrats have much leverage to stop the proposal, which would let Hoosier workers opt out of paying fees to unions they choose not to join, even if those groups represent them.
On Wednesday, Democrats tried repeatedly to amend a recommendation by the Interim Commission on Employment Issues that the General Assembly adopt a right-to-work law next year. They called the idea "radical" and said Republicans were simply aiming to destroy unions in Indiana.
"Marginalizing the opposition is not the way we operate in a democracy," said Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage. "I can't vote for anything whose real purpose is to silence dissent."
But Republicans, who have a 5-4 majority on the committee, beat back Democratic attempts to gut the recommendation and passed it on a party-line vote. They said the legislation will make Indiana more economically competitive and lower costs for Hoosier businesses.
Twenty-two states have right-to-work legislation.
"If you're not competitive, you're going to die," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville. "We have to stay competitive."
The committee's recommendation now moves on to the full General Assembly, which will begin meeting for its 2012 session in January. That's when Bauer's comments could lead to Democratic action – but what type is unclear.
Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, said Wednesday that "it's way too premature" to know what steps Democrats might take.
"At best we have a recommendation here. We don't have a bill. We still have to see the language," Battles said. "Clearly it goes against what I personally believe and what our caucus believes in but to make threats at this point is too premature. We'll wait and see what happens."
Republicans have a 60-40 majority in the Indiana House and a 37-13 majority in the Senate. The latter is a large enough margin to produce a quorum for business even if Democrats don't show up.
And last session, after House Democrats fled to Illinois to stop House action on right-to-work, the GOP pushed through a new law that could lead to $1,000-per-day fines for lawmakers that try to deny the quorum necessary to conduct business.
Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said Wednesday that Democrats learned their boycott "was not a good political or financial move for them."
Still, the move did work. Republicans agreed to take right-to-work off the agenda for the 2011 session, in part because GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels had an aggressive education agenda he did not want to see derailed. That's not the case this year, Torr said.
"I don't know that we have anything more important than this to do in the coming session," he said. "So it's a completely different dynamic."
Union leaders said Wednesday they have no plans to back off their opposition.
David Johnson, a union organizer for the Sheet Metal Worker's International Association, drove to the Statehouse from Evansville to protest at Wednesday's meeting. Johnson said he's confident union members and other Hoosiers will "wake up and see what they're trying to do here."
"Right to work will not benefit the state of Indiana," Johnson said. "It is a union busting measure."
In a statement, Indiana AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott called the proposal anti-worker legislation that "will force Indiana into a race to the bottom."
"We strongly oppose it," she said, "and will continue to do everything we can to educate and mobilize Hoosiers to defeat it."
Leslie Weidenbener is editor of Franklin College' Pulliam School of Journalism Indiana Statehouse Bureau.