Labor's Second Front

One year ago, a broad coalition of Wisconsinites held a massive three-week occupation of their state capitol opposing Governor Scott Walker’s bid to cripple collective bargaining for public employees. The Wisconsin uprising captured national attention, inspired organizing across the country, and instigated recall campaigns of its most prominent opponents. Now, another Republican legislature is set on breaking labor’s back, and union activists in the Hoosier State are hoping for an uprising of their own against. Governor Mitch Daniels’s efforts to make Indiana the first “right to work” state in the industrial Midwest.

“I hope that as Hoosiers, we’ve got enough tenacity to last as long as they are in Wisconsin,” says Jay Potesta, government affairs director for the sheet-metal workers’ union and former president of the Indiana Building Trades Association.

Tomorrow, a right-to-work bill covering all private-sector workers in Indiana is expected to pass one of several required votes. Right-to-work laws bar unions and companies from negotiating contract clauses that require union-represented workers to pay for the costs of representation. Such laws bleed unions of resources while emboldening employers to campaign against union membership and then denying union recognition. Labor and Democrats are working to turn the tide in subsequent votes and kill the bill before it reaches Daniels’s desk. In many ways, they face a tougher fight than their Wisconsin counterparts.

Although the Indiana bill directly affects more workers than Walker’s attack on public-worker bargaining does, it may be harder to galvanize broad and deep opposition against the law. Right-to-work’s threat to union members, though potentially dire, is less direct: Union members would not automatically lose their right to negotiate their benefits.

Then there’s the challenge of overcoming the public appeal of the phrase “right to work” itself. “Whereas in Wisconsin it was viewed as an attack on everyone, it may not be viewed that way here,” says Jeff Harris, Indiana AFL-CIO communications director. He adds, though, that Indianans recognize it as an example of “the 1 percent attacking the 99 percent.”

Significantly, Indiana is a more conservative state than Wisconsin, with less progressive infrastructure, less populist history, and fewer union members. Indiana University labor professor Kenneth Dau-Schmidt describes the state as Wisconsin in the north and Kentucky in the south. When he entered office in 2005, Governor Daniels ended union recognition for Indiana state workers simply by refusing to renew the executive order that had granted it. No massive protests erupted.

Joe Hopkins of Interfaith Worker Justice says that “a piece that’s been missing a little bit, and that we need to add, is more community”—that is, more involvement from nonunion Indianans. Hopkins is in Indiana reprising his role from Wisconsin, where he organized pro-union clergy.

In Wisconsin, union members’ activism expanded into an occupation that included retirees, students, and nonunion workers. Indiana’s right-to-work resistance may not have as much time to grow. Like their Wisconsin counterparts, Indiana Republicans attempted to limit public input on their bill, and Indiana Democrats slowed Republicans’ progress by denying them a quorum—though they did it in an “extended caucus” by the capitol, rather than by an undisclosed location out of state.

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That stalemate ended last Wednesday, when Democrats agreed to allow a quorum in exchange for a slower schedule and opportunities for testimony and amendments. Republicans had threatened to impose $1,000 daily personal fines against the Democrats, though Indiana Democratic Party Chair Dan Parker says that wasn’t what brought them back. “You can’t leave forever,” says Parker, adding that Republicans’ procedural hijinks made the boycott necessary and that the action should be reserved for such “extreme situations.” Indiana AFL-CIO President Guyott says that the new agreement on procedure “has essentially the same effect” as a continued legislative boycott: It buys time to sway Republicans. But no one knows how much.

At this stage, the AFL-CIO says it’s prioritizing constituent contact over mass protest, though the prospect of major demonstrations during the Super Bowl, which will take place in Indianapolis next month, hangs over the proceedings. Right-to-work opponents cite polls showing that most Indianans either oppose the bill or haven’t formed an opinion. If they can broaden that opposition, and demonstrate that it has strength, they expect some Republicans will get cold feet.

Despite difficult odds, there are signs of hope. In the past week, the capitol has seen thousands protest on a daily basis. Activists surrounded the legislative chambers as Daniels delivered his State of the State address and flagged down legislators after the speech. “We haven’t had the size of [Wisconsin’s] demonstrations,” says Dau-Schmidt, who grew up in Wisconsin. “But we are beginning to see the intensity.”

Potesta says both sides are showing greater determination now than in their showdown last year, when Republicans also pushed a raft of anti-union legislation. Thousands protested then, and Democrats left the state for 36 days, before a compromise under which some anti-union bills passed while others were tabled— including right-to-work.

“The labor movement has become much more active,” says Tom Lewandowski, president of the Northeast Indiana Labor Council. He cites local activists who organized a picket of a state representative’s store and packed another representative’s town hall. “I think being run over a lot has made a difference.”

Parker says Democrats are resisting right-to-work “with everything we have,” but he predicts it will pass. Hoosiers can’t recall Republicans (as Wisconsin is attempting to do) or use signatures to start a referendum (as Ohio did). Democrats and the AFL-CIO say a loss on right-to-work would fuel momentum for November’s legislative and gubernatorial elections.

Indiana’s history with right-to-work serves as an ambiguous backdrop for activists; eight years after Indiana Republicans passed a right-to-work law in 1957, Democrats repealed it. Parker says that the party would prioritize doing so again. But, in the meantime, right-to-work would leave Indiana’s unions without guaranteed finances, and its employers with a potent weapon. That’s more reason for labor to hope that Indianan union members emerge from this round with a stronger conviction that the union is theirs and worth fighting for.

“Most of the money is on it passing,” Lewandowski says, “but we also thought that it would be done by now. … We had no hope. Now there’s a little hope.”

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