Republicans in the Indiana House have filed bills that would prevent workers from being required to pay union dues, an issue considered so divisive that Gov. Mitch Daniels would prefer to avoid it.
The so-called right-to-work legislation could move forward anyway since Republicans have full control of the General Assembly after winning a House majority in last month's election. The bills would prohibit companies from making union dues or membership a requirement of employment.
House Labor Committee Chairman Doug Gutwein, R-Francesville, said he didn't yet know whether the bills would get public hearings and a vote during the legislative session that starts next week.
"I would imagine there will be some (Republican) caucus talk about this before we would get too far with it," Gutwein told The Courier-Journal of Louisville. "Personally I like the idea. It seems to work and seems like it's a plus for those states that have it. But we'll have to see."
But Daniels, also a Republican, has told legislative leaders that it would be better to leave the issue alone, even though he believes the proposal has merit. Daniels noted neither he nor the House Republican caucus campaigned on the proposed change.
"It's a very legitimate issue," Daniels said. "But I think it's too big to do without having discussed it out in the open first. And I'll also say I think it would have the potential — just tactically — to possibly reduce or wreck the chances for education reform and local government reform and criminal justice reform and the things we have a wonderful chance to do."
Democratic lawmakers and labor unions are certain to fight the legislation, which is similar to laws in 22 states.
"All the evidence shows (right-to-work laws) are extremely discriminatory for minorities and women. They drive down wages," said Rep. Dennis Tyler, D-Muncie, who serves on the House Labor Committee. "I think that our caucus will react accordingly and be heavily opposed to it."
Many Republicans remember labor unions' outrage in 1995, when the Legislature tried to change the state's prevailing wage law in a way that threatened to reduce pay for workers in public construction projects.
More than 20,000 union members attended a Statehouse protest, and the issue gave Democrats a boost that helped them win a House majority in the next election.
The AFL-CIO maintains the average worker in a right-to-work state makes about $5,333 a year less than workers in other states.
"There are many fewer people with health benefits, many fewer people with pensions, and other problems that would suck money out of our local economy," Indiana AFL-CIO President Susan Guyott said. "It would have a huge impact on our overall economy."
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce supports the proposal, saying it "would remove a significant impediment to investment and job creation" and could help distinguish Indiana from neighboring states, none of which have a similar law.
Daniels said he believes it's a valid idea, even if he doesn't think it's appropriate to pursue it now.
The lack of a right-to-work law "does hold us back economically," he said. "There is no doubt about it. We have an incredible win record in terms of the competitive transactions where businesses are competing states off against each other. But we also know a very large number — perhaps as many as a quarter — of the deals we don't get a shot at are for just for this reason."
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said his caucus has no definitive plans for how to proceed with the issue.
"I think it's one of the handful of issues that have the potential to derail some of the most critical matters" lawmakers are facing, Bosma said. "Having said that, there is no doubt there are some benefits to the proposal economically, and so we'll have to see how the discussion proceeds."