Indiana House Democrats returned to work Monday after their third boycott this year over right-to-work legislation, but swiftly moved to strike down the measure and put an end to what one lawmaker called "collateral damage."
The Democrats' return gave Republicans the number of lawmakers needed to take another vote on the proposal to ban unions from collecting mandatory representation fees from workers. But Democratic Rep. Scott Pelath of Michigan City opened what was expected to be lengthy debate with a procedural motion to kill the bill.
Democrats supporting the motion said the legislation is the most divisive bill the Legislature has ever seen.
"This institution is best served if we just end this right here and right now," said Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Indianapolis. "If you look at the collateral damage that this institution has suffered ... you have to ask yourself, at what cost?"
Republican Rep. Jerry Torr of Carmel said the proposal was premature. The GOP-led House rejected the motion, 59-39, as union protesters chanted outside the House chamber.
Republicans are pushing for Indiana to become the first state in more than a decade to approve right-to-work legislation. Supporters say the measure would bring more jobs to Indiana, where unemployment has crept up to around 9 percent. Opponents say it is aimed at breaking unions and claim it would depress wages for all workers.
"We seem to be doing all right under our current circumstances," said Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis.
National advocates have tried without success to push the measure in New Hampshire and other states following a wave of Statehouse victories by Republicans in 2010.
Indiana Democrats, who blocked similar legislation with a five-week walkout last year, are seeking a statewide voter referendum in November that would decide the fate of the right-to-work bill. Democratic House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer introduced a version of the referendum on Friday that he said was designed to pass constitutional muster.
Republican leaders maintain that such a referendum isn't allowed under the state constitution and that the Legislature must decide what becomes state law. The Republican-led Senate rejected such a referendum last week and planned to take a final vote on the right-to-work bill Monday.
The right-to-work battle has disrupted the legislative session that began Jan. 4 and has brought large crowds of union protesters to the Statehouse. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last week imposed $1,000-a-day fines against absent Democrats, but a Marion County judge issued an order Thursday blocking those fines from being deducted from the state paychecks of boycotters who have sued.
If the legislation passes, Indiana would become the 23rd state to approve a right-to-work law. A victory would hand national conservatives and business groups a major win on an issue that has recently eluded them elsewhere. It also would deal another blow to organized labor, which has seen mixed results in its fight against initiatives to curb union rights nationwide that followed the Republican victories in 2010.
The last state to enact a right-to-work law was Oklahoma in 2001.