In Depth: Union Legislation Tops 2012 Indiana General Assembly Calendar

by Rick Howlett on January 3, 2012

The Indiana General Assembly convenes Wednesday for its short,30-day session.

The calendar will be dominated by heated debate over the power of labor unions in the private sector.

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“Making Indiana the 23rd ‘right-to-work’ state will be the top priority of the Speaker of the House,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma announced at a November press conference.

Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long have pre-filed legislation that would block workplaces from requiring employees to pay union dues.

Republicans hold majorities in both chambers and the two leaders say they have the votes to pass it.

Supporters call it “right-to-work.” They say it would make Indiana more business-friendly and spur job growth in a state burdened with unemployment around nine percent.

Opponents have dubbed the policy “right to-work for less.” They claim it undercuts unions, resulting in lower wages and diminished work quality.

Indiana labor leaders say they would be forced—unfairly—to represent non-dues paying workers in union shops.

Republican Governor Mitch Daniels says were it not for the state’s high jobless rate, he wouldn’t urge passage of “right-to-work,” but Indiana’s lack of a such a law has been a deal-breaker in many economic development negotiations.

“I’ve talked myself blue in the face to some of these people, about, look, we’re a darn good state apart from this. Some of them buy it but many of them don’t”

Republicans are moving forward with the legislation after a series of hearings over the summer that drew some impassioned comments from both sides.

“I’m not sure I’d say the truth is in between, I’d say they’re both right,” says Joshua Pinkston, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Louisville.

Pinkston says some of the many studies conducted on the impact of “right-to-work” do support the job-creation argument.

“The downside of that is that unions actually do raise wages, and so it could result in more employment but lower wages”

Republicans tried to pass a “right-to-work” bill in last year’s session that drew hundreds of union demonstrators to the Statehouse and prompted a five-week walkout by House Democrats. The legislation was later shelved.

Labor leaders say they’ll be back in force this week and beyond, and if the bill is not passed quickly, they could use the Super Bowl spotlight to highlight their cause. The game is February 5th in Indianapolis.

As for another legislative boycott, Democratic leaders have not ruled it out. But Ed Feigenbaum says it appears unlikely. The publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight says House Democrats came under some heavy public criticism for their walkout last year, and Republicans have since increased the fines for failing to show up for work.

But that doesn’t mean Democrats can’t show their displeasure in other ways.

“They will probably be slow to the floor in the mornings. They will probably have lengthy caucus meetings that may even stretch over the stretch of more than one session day. There are a number of ways of slowing down the process and to show that you’re not happy with the way the railroad seems to be run,” Feigenbaum said.

A Ball State University poll finds about 48 percent of Hoosiers are undecided about “right-to-work” The rest are divided, with about 27 percent in favor of the policy and 24 percent opposed.

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