Go Big or Go Home

For those watching labor fights, the two very close, hard-fought games for the AFC and NFC championships yesterday (I'm talking football here, people), might have echoed what's happening in Indianapolis, host city to this year's Super Bowl. The battle over collective bargaining in one of the country's original manufacturing havens has already spawned teams, rules, and some hard-hitting tackles. And soon, one side may be trying for a Hail Mary.

State Republicans, including Governor Mitch Daniels, are pushing for "right to work" legislation that would forbid unions from requiring non-members to pay representation fees. Such laws generally leave unions with little power to bargain collectively, and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, workers in states with such laws make $5,300 less than those in states that allow workers to organize. Proponents of the proposed Indiana legislation argue it will lure more businesses and therefore, more jobs. For three weeks, the Indiana state House Democrats sporadically refused to come to the floor to provide the quorum that would allow the body to conduct business—and vote on the controversial bill. The Democrats pushed for an amendment to put the right-to-work proposal before voters; however, that amendment was found unconstitutional. Democrats say they will return to the floor when they've rewritten the amendment, perhaps by Thursday.

While the fight rages on, many are hoping the Super Bowl may help raise the stakes. Although the game itself is unlikely to be affected—the group that runs the stadium and convention center has no-strike agreements with the unions representing most relevant workers—that wouldn't prevent truckers, electricians, and others from causing a scene when tens of thousands of fans descend on the city in a few days for pre-game revelry. (The game itself won't take place for almost two weeks.) As one AP article notes:

Labor activists are deciding whether to go ahead with protests that could include Teamsters clogging city streets with trucks and electricians staging a slowdown at the convention center site of the NFL village. What's holding them back is a fear the effort could create a backlash from those who think sports and politics don't mix.

Indiana, with its auto and other manufacturing industries, has a strong union tradition. Thousands of workers in at least a half dozen unions, including stagehands, truckers, carpenters, electricians and service employees, will be involved in erecting and staffing the huge tent-city of food pavilions, kids' amusements, and live-music venues near Lucas Oil Stadium for a week before the Feb. 5 game.

It's a high-risk, high-reward situation. If the unions get across their message, they could gain support and attention from a slow-down or strike. Already, the unionized NFL Players Association has expressed its support, and quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Rex Grossman are among those speaking up for the cause. Cutler called the proposed law a "political ploy" that would hurt workers.

As the number of workers in unions has declined and with big chains like Wal-Mart still unorganized despite some efforts to that end, unions have struggled in the last couple of decades to show their relevance. But the attacks on collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio—and the public backlash that they've occasioned—have given the labor movement new life. With an enemy to point to, unions have been better able to demonstrate what's at stake in collective bargaining. Last week, organizers turned in more than one million petitions to recall Governor Scott Walker after his efforts to dismantle collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Last year, Ohio voters turned down a referendum proposing right-to-work legislation. As one Bloomberg article noted, most state legislatures have stayed away from union fights this year for fear of political consequences. 

Indiana labor advocates don't have a lot of options left. Republicans dominate both the House and Senate and have already drawn lines in the sand over the collective-bargaining issue. Already, House Democrats avoiding the floor (and breaking the necessary quorum) are getting fined $1,000 a day. If Indiana's unions can take advantage of the Super Bowl spotlight to make their case, they may as well give it a shot. 

Go big or go home, as the saying goes.