With Indiana 'right to work' vote, a GOP thumb in the eye to unions

The Indiana House approved a 'right to work' bill late Tuesday, taking the state a giant step closer to ruling out mandatory dues for workers at union workplaces. Indiana would be the first 'right to work' state in the upper Midwest.

Darron Cummings/AP
Indiana State Police stand at the entrance of the House of Representatives during a debate on the right to work bill at the Statehouse Wednesday, Jan. 25, in Indianapolis.

Indiana is poised to become the first state in the upper Midwest to follow the lead of Southern "right to work" states, taking a big step Tuesday to bar unions from requiring nonunion workers to pay membership dues for representation in bargaining.

The Republican-led Indiana House approved the controversial measure, 55 to 44, late Tuesday, after almost a year of dramatic standoffs between the political parties. The state Senate has already passed an identical bill, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) is expected to sign it.

State GOP leaders say the so-called right-to-work legislation is essential to turn around Indiana's struggling economy and to make the state a more desirable destination for businesses. "We are one stop closer to bringing more jobs to Hoosiers," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, in a statement.

Democrats framed the bill's passage as a political maneuver by Republicans to weaken union strength in the state. 

“The only places where today’s events will be cheered is in the boardrooms of big businesses and corporations across this state," said the top House Democrat, Patrick Bauer, in a statement Tuesday. "The House Republicans just helped increase the profit margins for these companies at the expense of their workers.”

Union dues have long been a target of Republican lawmakers, who say those dues are often used to further a Democratic agenda and to elect Democrats to office. The right-to-work legislation hits unions right in their pocketbooks, reducing their ability to wield clout in elections and during negotiations over labor contracts.

Once the bill becomes law, Indiana will be the 23rd right-to-work state – and the first in 10 years to take this path. Right-to-work laws are in effect mostly in the South and the West, where unions are least active and where “anti-union ideology is predominant,” says law professor Ann Hodges at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Attacking union coffers traditionally benefits Republicans, Ms. Hodges says, because of the ongoing political ties between unions and the Democratic Party.

“Reducing unions' resources reduces their ability to provide political support and influence public policy” introduced by Democrats, she says.

Unions already have precarious standing in Indiana. Union membership there has dwindled during the past 20 years, dropping 42 percent between 1990 and 2010. It fell below 300,000 in 2010, resulting in a state workforce that is 10.9 percent union, lower than the national average of 11.9 percent.

With union membership already in free-fall, the GOP victory Tuesday is largely “symbolic,” says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It just shows unions have declining political power.”

Unions might have been wiser to spend less energy in Indiana and to have redirected their efforts and resources to states such as Wisconsin or Michigan, where unions are stronger and have more political clout, he says.

It's unlikely that right-to-work laws will now cascade through the rest of the Midwest, says Mr. Chaison. But events in Indiana may result in “right to work” becoming a theme in the 2012 presidential race, endorsed by GOP hopefuls Newt Gringrich, a former US House speaker, and Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.

“If Republican candidates claim they want to increase jobs, they’ll now be likely to talk of having right-to-work laws to prevent job losses,” Chaison says. “They may now be emboldened and find they can gain political favor by opposing unions.”

The bill’s passage was hotly debated for almost a year. Last February, a five-week walkout by Democrats to Illinois prevented a vote, which was postponed to this year. Under Indiana law, a quorum is needed for every vote, whether it is a spending bill or not.

To prevent a vote, House Democrats, the minority party, several times refused to show up. They said public hearings were needed, so Indianans would be aware that the right-to-work bill was back on the legislative agenda. They later said they would return for a vote if an amendment were added to put the law to a voter referendum in November. The state Senate approved the bill Monday, without the referendum.

Oklahoma was the last state to pass a right-to-work law, in 2001. Data show that the state is not necessarily better positioned now to boost job growth, as many supporters claim. Since the right-to-work law went into effect there, the number of manufacturing businesses in Oklahoma fell by one-third and the state unemployment rate nearly doubled, according to a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington that focuses on economic equity and labor issues. 

The reality is that a right-to-work law did not insulate Oklahoma from economic forces at play during the past decade, namely the outsourcing of jobs abroad, says Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon in Eugene who wrote the EPI report. Between 2001 and 2008, Oklahoma lost more than 20,000 jobs to China.

“In Oklahoma, claims that were made that [right to work] would boost manufacturing were proved totally false,” says Mr. Lafer. “Manufacturing is not down by a third because of right to work, but because [the legislation] is irrelevant in the modern globalized economy.”

Supporters of the right-to-work law say that, despite the economy's job losses during the Great Recession, worker productivity is up in the state. They also say the ultimate goal of the legislation is not necessarily economic, but rather to guarantee the individual liberty of workers by allowing them to decide whether or not to pay union membership dues.

“At the end of the day, this is a battle between union officials and independent-minded workers,” says Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, an advocacy organization in Springfield, Va.

Many union workers do not approve of the politicking associated with organized labor, and they should have the right to withdraw their dues in protest, Mr. Mix says. That consequence will hold union leadership accountable for its actions.

“The reason union officials are scared of ‘right to work’ is they’re worried that if workers in Indiana have a choice to support them, some will choose not to,” he says.

Right-to-work critics say workers are already free to decide whether to join a union or not, and that they still have representation, if a contract dispute arises, even if they choose not to join.

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