Where Indiana Goes, So Goes the Nation


(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Rob Parsons, a steelworker from Merrillville, Ind., screams during a union workers protest on the steps of the Statehouse after the Senate voted to pass the right-to-work bill in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. The governor is expected to sign the bill later in the day. 

On March 4, 1957, Indiana passed right-to-work legislation. The Sunday Herald out of Bridgeport, Conn described how a crowd of 5,000 union members arrived at the state's Capitol the day before the bill passed, demonstrating and demanding that then-Gov. Harold W. Handley veto the measure. The day before, according to the Milwaukee Journal, more than 10,000 demonstrators had come to show their opposition. When the measure finally passed both chambers, Maine's Lewiston Daily Sun declared it "the biggest news right now in labor union circles." "Seventeen other States have right-to-work laws which declare that no individual shall be forced to join a union as a condition of employment," read the article. "Practically all of these are Southern or midwestern farm States. But Indiana is a leading industrial State, where organized labor is politically powerful."

Right-to-work didn't last long. Soon employers had agreed to allow "agency shops," which still allowed unions to collect fees from non-members. Within eight years, the Indiana Legislature repealed the measure and the Hoosier State has been considered a union-friendly state ever since. 

Well, until now. Right-to work, which prohibits mandatory union membership in the private sector and deals a crippling blow to the state's unions, will likely become law in the state once again today. After more than a year of fighting, the Indiana House passed the bill last week, and the state Senate is poised to pass it today and send it immediately to an eager Gov. Mitch Daniels. But the passage represents more than simply a loss in power for the state's unions. It's also a turning point in American labor history, marking the first time since 1957 that unions in a northern state have lost key rights, and first time since 1957 that a state's passed right-to-work laws with the hopes of ending union power rather than preventing it from taking hold. While state Republicans argue that getting rid of union fees will lure more jobs to the state, there's little union power left in the state. Rather the move to right-to-work instead represents an offensive into the pro-union part of the country, effectively a strike at unions while their power, even in the North, is at a 50-year low.

Indiana straddles the union and non-union regions of the country, a buffer between the country's unionized northern block and anti-union South and West. The southern part of the state, bordering on Kentucky and heavily agricultural, looks more like Dixieland. Meanwhile, northern cities like South Bend and Gary relied on the steel and auto industries respectively and showed a pretty consistent union presence over the last 80 years. The cities were manufacturing bases and if unions there weren't as powerful in nearby Chicago and Detroit, they nonetheless were significant players. The combination left Indiana as one of the weaker, pro-union states. 

"There are certain states in the North that have built progressive traditions over a 100-year period," says labor historian Gary Gerstle of Vanderbilt University. "Indiana never fits that category."

"It's not an epicenter of labor history," concurs Jefferson Cowie, a labor historian at Cornell University. "It's a little bit on the margins."

But Indiana was nonetheless a part of the labor movement. After World War I, says Cowie, workers began a renewed push for rights in the workplace, demanding the war's message of spreading democracy also include factories at home. Gary was a central player in the Great Steel Strike of 1919, which included more than 350,000 workers around the country, all demanding an eight-hour work day and other basic rights. The strike ultimately failed, however, and it wasn't until the Great Depression that the labor movement began to see critical legal protections for collective bargaining put in place. 

The 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act marked the a key victory for the country's unions. Workers were guaranteed the right to organize while employers could not discriminate against those who were in unions or filing grievances. According to both Gerstle and Cowie, union activists hoped to bring collective bargaining below the Mason-Dixon line.

"The dream of the New Deal was they were going to northern-ize the South," explains Gerstle.

Things did not go as planned. Major campaigns in 1937 and 1946 to unionize Southern states were both "spectacular failures" according to Gerstle, and Southern power brokers fought to maintain their states' labor and racial hierarchies, both of which would likely have been challenged had unions come in strong. An anti-union backlash after World War II allowed the conservative lawmakers to pass the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which curtailed some of the power unions won in 1935. In addition to limiting some types of strikes and prohibiting unions from donating to federal political campaigns, the act also allowed states to prohibit unions from collecting fees from non-members or making membership mandatory; in other words, it allowed for so-called "right-to-work" laws. And it was those states trying to prevent union power that began passing the measure.

"Right-to-work laws weaken labor for sure," says Cowie. "But they were passed in states where labor was already weak." States throughout the South and West soon passed such legislation, and used the laws to prevent unions from gaining a foothold or gaining significant power. The laws never actually dismantled a strong union presence, but instead kept unions out for fear they would upset racial and class structures.

In Indiana, the one state with unions to pass the measure, the law had little effect. As a 1965 story from the St. Petersburg Independent explained,  Indiana employers had already accepted "the agency shop" which was "a legal way of evading the right to work law."

But since the 1970s, labor's power has been slowly diminishing, and after almost 40 years, Indiana may now be the perfect place for union opponents to stage an offensive. At this point, says Gerstle, "all the union gains of the New Deal era have pretty much been erased .... Organized labor in terms of strength of numbers is at a historic low." While many currently pushing for right-to-work laws argue the measure will free employers and bring more jobs, the law could never pass if unions had significant power in the state. Instead because the state's unions are losing power—and because Indiana was never a stronghold of pro-union sentiment—the move could shut down unions at a time when they're already struggling. As an military strategist will tell you, that's the time to strike. It's hard to believe that right-to-work advocates aren't hoping a key political voice on issues like the minimum wage and working conditions will get quieter. 

"The question was always when will we organize the South?" says Cowie. "But in fact the opposite happened. The South is slowly chipping away at the North and bringing the North into a lower wage, non-union economy."

"Indiana," he says, "is sort of indicative of that war between the states."


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