Indiana braces for Wisconsin-style showdown over union bill - again

Indiana Democrats are refusing to allow the state’s House to come to session because of the bill. They want Republicans to agree to hold public hearings on the issue around the state.

Michael Conroy/AP
Protesters wait to enter the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Thursday. Republicans vow to push to make Indiana the first state in a decade to enact labor legislation that would ban labor contracts requiring all workers to pay union fees, minority Democrats consider their options for blocking the bill.

Democrats in Indiana are replaying a scene from last year by refusing to allow the state’s House to come to session and vote on a controversial bill that they say will weaken unions.

The Indiana House returned Wednesday for a 10-week session. On the agenda: a so-called right-to-work bill that would ban negotiations between a union and company if workers are forced to pay fees for representation.

Democrats did not show up for the legislative session and instead remained in private meetings, which prevented the Republican majority from having a quorum to start the session. Indiana law is written so a quorum is needed for every vote, whether or not it involves spending money.

Democrats are hesitant to call their actions a walkout, a term that was last year when the same legislative proposal prompted the same lawmakers to flee to Illinois for five weeks. They returned once Republicans removed the bill from a vote in the 2011 legislative session.

This time around, Democrats will not return until Republicans agree to hold public hearings around the state, says minority leader Pat Bauer of South Bend. “It’s a filibuster until we can get the truth. For now, it’s about the bill,” Representative Bauer told reporters Wednesday.

Bauer said that while their actions are indefinite, he and his colleagues have no intention of exiting the state.

How long they stay away is up to the public, says Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

“You can’t tell exactly how far [the Democrats] will go until you see more of the public reaction to them not showing up again,” Mr. Vargus says. “It’s impossible if it comes to any kind of vote. The only hope they have is if it goes before the public.”

Republicans are promoting the right-to-work bill as a job creator that will drive businesses to the state for a business-friendly environment. They also say the bill gives workers a choice on whether they want to commit to union dues.

Democrats see the bill as a backhanded way to weaken unions. In a statement Wednesday, Bauer said the current legislation package proposed by Republicans is staked on “an anti-paycheck, anti-job bill that will lower wages, cut pensions and benefits, and increase workplace deaths.”

If the right-to-work bill does become law, Indiana would become the 23rd state with such legislation – though it would be the first in America’s traditional manufacturing belt. The last state to adopt this kind of rule was Oklahoma in 2001.

Republicans say that the Democrats’ actions are stalling votes on other important issues including education, a statewide smoking ban, a phaseout of the state’s inheritance tax, and a $1.3 billion overhaul of mass transit in central Indiana.

The Democrats’ filibuster is a “childish tactic,” Rob Beiswenger, executive director of the Indiana Right to Work Committee, told a local television station Wednesday. “Not only are [Democrats] stopping the right-to-work bill; they are stopping every single bill.”

For each day in session that Democrats miss, they face a $1,000 fine per lawmaker – a penalty that became law last year following that exodus. Republicans have yet to say if they will issue the fines.

The call by Democrats to hold public meetings is not unwarranted, according to a poll conducted this past November by Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs in Muncie, Ind. It found that while 27 percent of Indiana residents support right to work and 24 percent oppose it, 48 percent are undecided.

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