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Indiana becomes Midwest's newest labor law battleground

January 4, 2012 | 10:49 am

The Indiana Legislature opens its 2012 session on Wednesday with the state bracing for a fight over labor representation -- the signature political battle between conservative Republicans and unions fought across much of the Midwest last year.

Wisconsin was home to last year's hottest confrontation, if you'll recall. (Folks in Wisconsin certainly do, but more on that later.)

The current skirmish line is in the Indiana General Assembly, which is scheduled to consider a right-to-work law. If it passes, Indiana would become the first state in the nation’s traditional manufacturing region to adopt such a measure limiting union power. Right-to-work laws -- already on the books in 22 states, mainly in the South and West -- prevent workers in unionized shops from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

The measure, which failed passage in Indiana in 2004 and was considered last year, is coming back in this session as Republicans argue that it's an economic development issue, designed to make the state more attractive to business. In addition to being backed by conservatives, the bill is strongly supported by business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce.

It is equally opposed by labor groups, including the state AFL-CIO, which has launched a media blitz against the measure that is expected to be debated this week in committee.

“If passed, this will have a wide-ranging and overwhelmingly negative impact on workers’ wages, safety conditions and rights and that’s why it is critical that all Hoosiers reach out to their legislators to tell them to vote no on the 'right to work for less' bill,” Indiana state AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott stated.

Labor unions have promised demonstrations similar to those that rocked the Wisconsin state Capitol last year. Those demonstrations came as Gov. Scott Walker pushed a measure limiting public employee unions and requiring government workers to pay a higher percentage of the costs of their benefits, including those for health insurance and pensions.

Unions are now fighting to gather enough signatures to force a recall election in Wisconsin this year. Walker has repeatedly defended his actions, saying he helped taxpayers and local governments gain control over their budgets.

Labor issues have remained divisive throughout the Midwest, with the sides sometimes even arguing about what is actually going on. For example, on New Year’s Day, Wisconsin’s Pulaski High School marching band surprised viewers of the annual Rose Parade in Pasadena by breaking into a song that sounded much like the Woody Guthrie classic, “Union Maid.” Liberal groups immediately interpreted the song as a pro-union message against Walker.

But school officials quickly sought to dampen that perception, saying that the song was actually a 1907 song, called the “Red Wing Polka,” a tribute to the area’s Polish heritage.

The fight in Indiana is far less symbolic and far more nitty-gritty power politics.

To prevent the kind of demonstrations that rocked Wisconsin, as well as Ohio, last year, Indiana officials have limited the number of people in the Capitol to 3,000, a move designed to curtail the number of protesters. There are about 1,700 employees already in the building, Democrats argue, so at most about 1,300 people, of all agendas, can complain.

In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Assembly Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said he's confident he can push the right-to-work bill through his chamber during the 2012 session, but noted that anything is possible.

“We assume nothing,” Bosma said. “I don’t assume we have all the Republicans’ votes. In fact, I know I don’t and I don’t presume we don’t have some Democrat votes either.”

Indiana’s House Democrats successfully blocked the measure last year with a five-week walkout that prevented a quorum. Republicans hold wide advantages in both houses, by 60-40 in the Assembly and 37-13 in the Senate. Gov. Mitch Daniels also strongly backs the bill.

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-- Michael Muskal

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