Republicans in the Indiana House on Wednesday pushed through three labor-related bills that had drawn protests from Democrats during their five-week legislative boycott.
The bills cleared the House on largely party line votes during the second full day of floor action since boycotting Democrats returned to their jobs from Illinois on Monday. Their return meant the House members had enough members present to conduct official business.
The proposals advanced to the state Senate would change regulations covering worker pay on government construction projects, prohibit cities and counties from setting higher minimum wages and guarantee secret ballots in union elections.
Democratic legislators — and union protesters who gathered at the Statehouse during the boycott — had aimed their greatest ire at the construction project bill, which includes provisions ending requirements that non-union companies sign agreements involving union rules.
The Democrats returned after Republicans agreed to several changes to the bill, but they still voted as a block against it. The bill was approved by a 54-44 margin, with six Republicans joining all Democrats present in voting no.
Democrats claimed the changes would hurt middle-class workers.
"This is a measure that is intended to drive down wages," said Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. "For the good of our country we need to be promoting policies that sustain wages."
Republican Rep. Bill Davis of Portland, the bill's sponsor, said it was aimed at increasing the number of Indiana contractors who will bid on government projects and get more jobs for state residents on those projects.
The proposal would have originally increased from $150,000 to $1 million the point at which projects were exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law and removed school districts and state universities from its requirements.
Republicans agreed to change that limit to $250,000 in 2012 and raise that to $350,000 starting in 2013. They also agreed to delete the school and university exemptions.
The bill also would prohibit non-union contractors from having to sign project labor agreements, which are typically reached between government agencies and union groups for large projects such as the building of Lucas Oil Stadium and the new passenger terminal at Indianapolis International Airport.
Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, disputed that the bill's changes would force lower worker pay, but insisted they would reduce the cost of government projects.
"If we can get the same job done for less money, I think we're obligated to spend less in taxpayer dollars," Leonard said.
Another of the bills approved Wednesday would prohibit cities and counties from adopting local ordinances that set higher minimum wages than those under state or federal law.
Rep. Mike Speedy, R-Indianapolis, said the measure would protect hotels, restaurants and small businesses from the possibility of such actions that could put them at competitive disadvantages with other communities.
Rep. Dennis Tyler, D-Muncie, argued that under the bill legislators were telling city and county officials that they knew what was best for their communities and taking away local authority.