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Super Bowl mixes with labor politics in Indianapolis

January 30, 2012 | 10:32 am

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Two fierce battles are playing out in Indianapolis this week -- football’s Super Bowl XLVI, of course, and the political fight over whether Indiana will become the 23rd state in the nation (and the first in the once union-centric Rust Belt) with a right-to-work law.

The two fights have become linked as Republican state lawmakers push to get the bill to the governor’s desk this week. They hope to have a signing ceremony before the national media turn Indianapolis -- the country's 12th most-populous city, according to the most recent U.S. Census -- into the country’s No. 1 sports haven.

The Hoosier State does not want anything to detract from the sunny publicity that usually comes from hosting the Super Bowl, but the right-to-work issue is so fraught -- especially in a presidential election year and with much of the Midwest battling over labor issues -- that political thunderclouds are already forming.

On Monday, all three Democrats on the Senate Labor and Pensions Committee skipped the hearing on the right-to-work law as a protest against the speed with which the bill is moving through the legislature. “We have three members and they did not go” to the meeting, “because they are displeased with the rush,” Peg McLeish, press secretary to the Democratic minority, said in a telephone interview.

But the Democrats don't have the numbers to seriously slow down the legislative process. The bill passed the House, 54-44, last week. It would normally not come up in the Senate until next week, and Democrats see Sunday’s Super Bowl as the reason for the haste.

The outcome seems assured because one version of the bill has already passed the Senate, 28-22. Both houses are controlled by the GOP, and Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has made the bill one of his priorities, is also a Republican.

The measure would allow workers to avoid paying dues to a union even if the workplace, private or public, is unionized. Unions dislike such a law because, they say, it creates free riders -- people who benefit from union-negotiated contracts without having to pay for the cost of bargaining or maintaining the contract. Conservatives argue that forcing someone to pay dues violates their rights.

Many Republicans, including Daniels, also contend that with a right-to-work law, businesses would find the state more attractive and would be more willing to move in, creating new jobs.

As the two sides fight over the potential economic impact of right-to-work laws, what is clear is that organized labor has become a target, particularly in parts of the Midwest run by Republicans. Similar fights have taken place in Wisconsin, now bracing for a recall election pushed by Democrats against the Republican governor, and in Ohio.

Republicans see the issue as an electoral winner that might have national legs in 2012.

In a poor economy, state and local governments are desperate to save money, and weaker unions mean fewer workers. Union membership in Indiana has dropped from 14.1% to 8.9% in the past decade, part of a general decline across the nation.

But if unions and their allies are weaker, they still have a voice. Over the weekend, there were protests against the proposed law as about 75 people marched through the Super Bowl village area, chanting “Occupy the Super Bowl.” The protests are expected to continue this week.

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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: A protester walks the hallways of the Indiana statehouse last week as the battle over the right-to-work law heated up. Credit:  Darron Cummings/Associated Press

 

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