Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the Indiana statehouse yesterday to protest an aggressive package of Republican legislative reforms they say would harm unions and teachers across the state.
Yesterday's demonstrations were the biggest since a series of labor-led rallies jumped off last month, following an unexpected push by House Republicans to pass the so-called "Right-to-Work" bill (RTW), which would have effectively eliminated collective bargaining powers among private sector unions statewide.
Indiana State Police estimated more than 8,000 people turned up at yesterday's rally — based on estimates drawn from overhead photography, a spokesman told NUVO. Organizers uniformly disputed that estimate, putting the crowd closer to 20,000, based on a comparison with an earlier rally that drew 10,000.
Buses jammed the streets around the statehouse for hours as protesters amassed to huddle together in freezing temperatures and cutting winds at the west entrance to the Capitol. Jeff Harris, a spokesman for the Indiana AFL-CIO, said around 230 buses had arrived carrying protesters throughout the morning.
Harris also said the AFL-CIO had received four reports of buses having been pulled over by State Police for tailgating on their way to Indianapolis.
From the veranda above the west entrance, singers belted out spirited protest songs and union leaders, teachers and preachers whipped the crowd into excitement, offering chants, prayers and speeches. Above them, government staffers gathered in the windows, observing the crowd.
Inside the statehouse, things were quiet. House Democrats were still absent, most of whom had fled the state weeks ago in an effort to force a compromise on several bills that would have busted unions, expanded charter schools, removed many of teachers' bargaining rights and created a school voucher system that would funnel taxpayer money to private schools.
Rep. Bill Crawford (D-Indianapolis) returned to Indiana to speak to the crowd. He said afterward that absent House Democrats stood with the crowd and that the demonstrators were "expressing what we've been fighting for in Urbana," specifically, to "give people the chance to express their true feelings" about the controversial GOP reforms.
Last week, party leaders had asked Crawford, ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee and Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale) the committee's chair, to meet to discuss the budget. Asked about the budget negotiations, Crawford said there had been none.
Crawford said he came to Indianapolis from Urbana last week to meet with Espich, when he received a phone call informing him Espich had declared he would only negotiate on the House floor.
Crawford and Democratic leaders agreed Crawford should turn around and come back to Urbana.
Republicans, meanwhile, were also absent, adding to the quietness inside the statehouse that stood in sharp contrast to the spirited shouts and sloganeering outside. House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) had adjourned the House for the rest of the week, stating publicly that the Big Ten Tournament had forced many House members out of their hotel rooms.
Democrats weren't buying it. They accused Republicans of keeping away so as not to face the crowds.