FEIGENBAUM: Right-to-work debate could create sparks in Legislature

January 15, 2011

In case you thought the so-called “wedge” issues were limited to hot-button social concerns such as same-sex marriage, abortion or even school vouchers, you must expand your definition for this legislative session.

That’s because the right-to-work issue has re-emerged on the Hoosier political scene after years of Democratic control of the House of Representatives prevented the concept from being debated.

The two key bills to watch this session are House Bill 1028, authored by Rep. Wes Culver, R-Goshen, and co-authored by Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, that would impose Class A misdemeanor penalties on any employer who compelled union membership as a requirement for employment, and a similar measure, HB 1043, authored by Torr and co-authored by Culver and two others.

Both pieces of legislation have been referred to the House Committee on Employment, Labor and Pensions, and the very assignment of a right-to-work bill caused opening-day histrionics as Democrats sought to kill the concept right.

That show of force among supporters of organized labor at the session’s outset offered evidence that this will be an emotional issue. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R–Indianapolis, tried to explain at assorted forums between Election Day and the January festivities that, when it came to offering right-to-work in the Legislature, “Them’s fightin’ words” to many.     

Indeed, the bulk of legislative Democrats, allied with organized labor, are vehemently opposed to having Indiana join almost two dozen other states with right-to-work laws, labeling them as discriminatory against minorities and women, and contending that such laws will do little more than reduce wages and lower the living standards of many Hoosiers.

When Republicans sought to change prevailing-wage laws for public construction projects in 1995, a show of force at the Statehouse by organized labor like none other took that issue off the table, and afforded Democrats a cause célèbre of sorts for the 1996 elections.

Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, is sympathetic to the cause, but wary of the price of success. He has long believed that Indiana’s failure to bar closed-shop labor agreements eliminates Indiana right out of the box for many economic development projects being considered by corporations with multistate options, but he also expressed pre-session concern that a serious push for a right-to-work law could poison the environment for work on other fiscal, economic development and education initiatives.

What seems intriguing is that Daniels suggested the right-to-work concept had not been an issue in the 2010 elections, and could probably benefit from a bit more political vetting, presumably both at the macro-level, as an issue to be debated by statewide candidates, and at the micro-level, in more hotly contested state legislative contests.

So what will happen with right-to-work legislation this session? Expect to see baby steps taken by Republican leaders to gauge reaction of Democrats in the chamber, organized labor, the business community and the public at large. You already saw the initial reaction by Democrats to the simple ministerial act of assignment to committee, and this will make leadership take the temperature of the room at each stage. Leaders will be sensitive to this if they decide to move the bill, and they also want to determine what actions will provoke what kind of response from organized labor, and how helpful the business community will be in mitigating that. They also will want to see how engaged the public may be in this.

Rep. Doug Gutwein, R-Francesville, must decide whether to grant HB 1028 or HB 1043 a hearing in his labor committee. Gutwein favors the right-to-work principles, but whether he will convene a committee hearing is a decision likely to be guided by the sense of the House Republican caucus with at least some input from the governor.

If a hearing is to be granted, it may well be for informational purposes only, and you should not be surprised to see a bill amended to simply provide for an interim study committee to be constituted this summer to address the issue in depth.

Even assuming a summer study, success would not be assured in the 2012 short session, as both parties may prefer to use the issue for political purposes, seeking to focus upon this as a rallying point for their respective backers. The issue could then be fully aired out across the Hoosier hinterlands and readied for a vote in 2013—or not.•


Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.


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