Legislature and State Government and Government & Economic Development and Government

Fight over labor legislation heats up at Statehouse

January 6, 2012

A few hundred union protesters were on hand Friday morning for a public hearing before Indiana legislators on a divisive labor bill that's prompted a two-day standstill in the Indiana House.

The Senate and House labor committees are holding a joint hearing on the proposal to prohibit contracts between companies and labor unions that require workers to pay mandatory representation fees.

Republicans have set aside four hours for the hearing, after which the Senate committee is expected to vote.

Supporters of the bill say it would make the state more attractive to employers, while opponents maintain it is an attack on unions and would drive down wages.

Protesters were quiet during the hearing, but some held signs with sayings such as "Stop the war on workers."

During the hearing, Republican Sen. Brent Waltz of Greenwood asked the president of the Oklahoma chamber of commerce whether the energy industry had a greater impact on that state's economic health than its adoption of a right-to-work law in 2001. Waltz says he wasn't convinced about the law's economic sway.

The Oklahoma official told the labor committees that the law gives his state a competitive advantage over Indiana in attracting new businesses.

House Democrats are bracing for major financial pain as they begin a third day blocking a bill that would make Indiana the first state in more than a decade to enact right-to-work legislation.

Fines of $1,000 daily for each Democrat could hit Friday, depending on what Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma decides to do with lawmakers who deny him the numbers needed to push through the Republican priority.

But Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, said that if she can stand on principle against the labor bill and fines that could reach into the tens of thousands of dollars, other Democrats can, too.

"I'll be the main one to say 'I cannot stand the fine,'" she said Thursday as Democrats strategized in a private meeting at the Statehouse. "I'm a single mother, I have a son in college, I'm moving in with my mother, but I'm on the right side of history. So whatever happens is going to bless me."

Democrats stalled business Wednesday, the first day of the 2012 session, when they did not report to the House floor. They continued Thursday to block action on a right-to-work measure that would bar private unions from collecting mandatory fees.

Republican leaders planned a joint hearing Friday to weigh the measure and Senate lawmakers were prepared to take an initial vote on the measure afterward.

Inside the 40-member caucus, lawmakers are split over how much they can afford to keep stalling in order to block the bill. Some strode out of Thursday's caucus meeting saying that if they suffered through last year's five-week stay in Urbana, Ill., they can stand on principle now.

But others said new $1,000-a-day fines established by Republicans after last year's walkout have raised the stakes much higher than some can afford.

"Last year they were taking my bank account, this year they're taking my home," said Rep. David Cheatham, D-North Vernon. Cheatham was one of three Democrats who has joined Republicans in the House chamber each day. They say they oppose the right-to-work measure but don't agree with the stall tactics.

House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer said Thursday that Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma told him in a private meeting he would begin fining Democrats on Friday.

"It's a significant issue. We think it's another assault against free speech," Bauer said as he walked into the House Democratic caucus meeting.

But Bosma said he had not decided whether to begin implementing the fines Friday and that no legal paperwork had been started.

"We're just counting on folks having some common sense and showing up for work eventually," Bosma said.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, joined the three Democrats on Thursday for a quorum vote that placed Republicans very close to getting the numbers they need to push the bill forward. He said he is asking Republicans to give them more public hearings on the issue.

He also noted there is little Democrats can do to stop the measure.

"That's the quandary, and we have to decide: What we can we do?" DeLaney said. "We have limited resources and we have a limited number of votes."

National right-to-work advocates say they see Indiana as their best shot at passing the labor bill into law. Despite a slate of statehouse wins across the nation in 2010, Republicans have been unable to move the measure yet. They came closest in New Hampshire, but lawmakers could not find the votes to overturn Democratic Gov. John Lynch's veto.

Bauer and other Democrats would not say Thursday how long they planned to stall. Instead, Bauer said, they plan to hold public hearings on the proposal around the state as soon as this weekend. The first hearings could happen in Fort Wayne and Evansville.

The new law levies a fine of $1,000 per day against each lawmaker who sits out more than three days in a row. Republicans established the new penalties after Democrats left the state last year to block the right-to-work measure.

The House Democratic caucus meanwhile opened an account on the Democratic fundraising website ActBlue and sent out an appeal Wednesday on Facebook seeking donations of between $5 and $250. "The Indiana House Democrats NEED YOUR HELP! Please support our caucus as we fight another battle against the Republicans as they try to push RTW legislation through without listening to working Hoosiers," the Democrats wrote in their appeal.

Indiana Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Wagner said her group did not pay for any of the penalties accrued last year and did not plan to pay any fines this year.

A lawsuit challenging fines from last year's session filed by Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, is still being weighed by a Marion County Superior Court judge.

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