- Photo courtesy of Lesley Weidenbener, Franklin College Statehouse Bureau
- Union workers gathered outside the Indiana House chamber Tuesday where lawmakers were gathered for an Organization Day to prep for their 2012 session. The union members object to right-to-work legislation that would allow workers to opt out of paying fees to unions they don't join.
By Lesley Weidenbener
The demonstration came one day after Republican leaders announced that passing a right-to-work law will be their top priority, one they said is necessary to boost Indiana's job-creation efforts. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said companies are currently bypassing Indiana for states that free workers from paying fees to unions they don't join.
But workers said otherwise. Mitch Anton, a steel worker from northwest Indiana, said he came to the Statehouse to tell lawmakers why right-to-work will hurt the state.
"It will weaken unions," Anton said Tuesday. "And that will mean fewer protections for workers, lower wages for workers and less safety. It's not good for Indiana."
Both sides of the contentious debate have produced studies supporting their views. But Republicans have the upper hand in the General Assembly, where they hold significant majorities in the House and Senate.
Republicans have a 60-40 majority in the House and a 37-13 majority in the Senate. The Senate margin is so wide that Republicans can produce a quorum for business even if Democrats don't show up.
If Democrats in the House want to boycott business, as they did during the 2011 session, they face substantial obstacles. Most notably, the GOP earlier this year pushed through a new law that could lead to $1,000-per-day fines for lawmakers who try to deny the quorum necessary to conduct business.
- Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, Franklin College Statehouse Bureau
- House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, talked with reporters Tuesday after calling on lawmakers to be "brave" and have the courage to move forward with a right-to-work law.
As he gaveled the House into session, Bosma urged lawmakers to have the courage to move forward with a controversial idea.
"Do you want to be brave or safe?" Bosma asked. "It would be very easy for us to have a very safe session. But for me, I think it has to be brave."
During the 2011 session, majority House Republicans moved a right-to-work bill out of committee. But Democrats boycotted the session — even fleeing to Illinois — for more than one month in an attempt to block its passage.
Eventually, the GOP gave up on the bill and sent the topic to a study committee for action. That group has recommended the General Assembly take up the issue in January. Then on Monday, Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said it would be a top priority for the session.
Long said Monday that the goal of the right-to-work legislation is not to eliminate unions.
"We'll do everything we can to have a fair, open and honest discussion about that," Long said. "In the end, a right-to-work law in Indiana makes sense. I think it will create a lot of jobs — good-paying jobs — for this state and that's why we're doing it."
But the AFL-CIO — which early this year organized weeks of rallies and protests against the legislation — called the Republicans' position "laughable."
The AFL-CIO organized Tuesday's demonstrations at the Statehouse and workers are expected to continue with similar gatherings and rallies as the session begins in earnest in January.
"It's about money and power," said Nancy Guyott, the AFL-CIO's Indiana president.
"Big corporations and their elected friends want to bust up unions, eliminating the last group of people standing in the way of unfettered corporate control," Guyott said. "They want to drive down wages and increase profits. They want to eliminate the voice of working people in the political process."
House Minority leader Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, has promised to "respond appropriately" if Republicans continue to push the right-to-work legislation. But this week, he wouldn't say just what that action might be.
"I certainly do think the minority has the right to defend the people and the process from a majority that becomes tyrannical," Bauer said. "We have to choose those means that will be most effective. But right now, I couldn't say what that is without talking to people and discussing it further."
Bauer suggested that an Occupy Wall Street-type protest — which has led thousands of people across the nation to camp out in parks and other public locations, though few in Indianapolis — might be one option. So would forums and rallies across the state. Regardless, Bauer said, the public needs to be involved in some more expansive way if Democrats are to be successful stopping the legislation.
Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, served on the summer study committee and said he's still hopeful that the Republicans will change their minds about right-to-work.
"I'll always remain optimistic," Battles said. "I hope we go with facts and if we go with good facts and not store-bought reports, we'll find it really doesn't create jobs and the jobs it creates will be low-wage jobs. I hope at the end of the day this is about policy and not politics."
The union lobby is gearing up for politics.
AFL-CIO members are "preparing for any and all eventualities," union spokesman Jeff Harris said last week as he prepared for the Organization Day action. "We don't know how things will play out, but we are going to do what we did last year: Encourage our members to come to the Statehouse and talk to their legislators one on one. That seems to be the most effective strategy."
Lesley Stedman Weidenbener is editor at the Franklin College Statehouse News Bureau