Indiana's GOP leaders say their "top priority" next year is making Indiana the 23rd right-to-work state in the nation — an announcement setting up a showdown that could easily dominate the 10-week legislative session.
"Today the campaign for freeing workers begins," Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said at a last-minute news conference Monday to announce the plan. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, stood by and pledged his support.
The announcement sets up a showdown of Republicans and business leaders against Democrats and unions after the session begins in January.
A legislative study committee voted along party lines last month to support a proposal that would prohibit workers from being required under labor contracts to pay union representation fees.
The lone holdout among Indiana's Statehouse Republican leaders remains Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has spoken highly of the issue but has not said yet whether he will support passage of the bill next year. Spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said Monday his position has not changed.
Long and Bosma said they briefed Daniels on their plans, but they would not say whether he was supporting them on the issue.
Daniels has said the state could see an economic boost from a right-to-work law, but has stopped short of endorsing it.
Indiana AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott called the rhetoric from Republicans and business leaders Monday a "Wall Street re-branding effort" and said it would take away existing freedoms businesses and unions have to set their own contracts. Union members are expected to protest at the Statehouse Tuesday as lawmakers gather for a pro forma meeting before returning again in January to start the 2012 session.
House Democrats walked out for five weeks last year to block right-to-work legislation and other measures, effectively shutting down the House by denying Republicans the number of lawmakers needed to conduct business.
"Why are they taking the pillars of our jobs and crushing them for excessive corporate profits?" asked House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, shortly after Bosma's announcement.
Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, said she believes Republicans sprung the announcement Monday morning and used combative language to "goad" the House Democrats into another walkout.
Bauer said it's too early to say whether Democrats will attempt to block the measure again next year by walking off their jobs. Senate and House Republicans approved $1,000-a-day fines earlier this year to prevent another walkout.
Although the concept has been more or less dormant for the last few decades, it has enjoyed a resurgence since Republicans took control of a majority of state legislatures during the 2010 elections. National right-to-work advocates have said they see Indiana as their best chance at winning passage since Oklahoma approved the measure in 2001.
New Hampshire Republicans are working to overturn a veto from Democratic Gov. John Lynch, and national advocates see chances for success in Michigan and Kentucky.
Bosma quietly organized Monday's morning announcement, giving him a chance to fill the House chamber with business leaders and lobbyists from across the state while avoiding union protesters who are likely to become omnipresent during the 2012 session.
If prospects look dicey next year, Republicans have a number of legislative tricks they can use to swiftly approve the measure. But Bosma promised the measure would travel through normal legislative channels of approval, giving plenty of time for public hearings. He promised no "sneak attacks" and pointed to Monday's announcement a month and a half before lawmakers begin their work in January as evidence.
Republicans hold the raw numbers needed for success in both chambers: They outnumber Democrats 60-40 in the House and 37-13 in the Senate.
A key focus will be on the handful of Republican lawmakers in both chambers who still tout union support and represent labor-heavy areas such as Kokomo and Valparaiso. Every House seat and half of the Senate will be on the ballot eight months after lawmakers are set to wrap up work in March.
Right-to-work legislation is backed by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
"Passing a right-to-work law is the single most important action our lawmakers can take to put more Hoosiers back to work," Chamber President Kevin Brinegar said in a prepared statement released Monday morning. "Currently, we have more than 200,000 people unemployed in Indiana and many more at risk as employers deal with a still unstable economy. A right-to-work law would open the door to attracting new and expanding companies and the numerous jobs they bring."
Brinegar said the state must pass the legislation to stay competitive.
"Site selection experts from across the country will tell anyone who will listen that between one third and nearly half of the companies that hire them to find a good location won't even consider non right-to-work states for their business growth and expansion plans," he said. "So Indiana is automatically out of the running in far too many instances. Other Midwestern states such as Michigan and Kentucky are now looking at passing right-to-work to gain a dramatic competitive advantage for jobs. We cannot afford to fall behind the competition."