Assembly likely faces more division
Unions rally at Statehouse on organization day
INDIANAPOLIS - If the scene Tuesday at the Indiana Statehouse was a true preview of the General Assembly's next session, then 2012 is going to be another tumultuous year in the legislature.
Republicans, who hold large majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, have tagged a labor issue called "right to work" as their top priority for the 10-week legislative session that begins Jan. 4.
Meanwhile, Democrats and the unions who support them have made it clear they won't accept the GOP agenda quietly. Hundreds of union members packed the Statehouse halls Tuesday as legislators convened for their annual organization day.
"We think this is a devastating proposition for workers, their wages and their health care," House Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said, "and for Indiana businesses because people will have less money to spend and help others."
Right-to-work legislation would prohibit employers and labor unions from negotiating contracts that require every worker in a shop to pay fees for representation in collective bargaining.
Such union-security agreements are outlawed in 22 states. Proponents say banning them in Indiana would make the state more attractive to businesses and investment, but opponents say doing so would drive down wages and working conditions.
"We need to do whatever's necessary to attract more employers to our state and have the difficult discussions that will help get us there," House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said Tuesday afternoon during his speech to representatives.
"This isn't a time for political posturing," he said. "This is a time for solutions."
Union members chanted loudly outside the House chamber as Bosma delivered his remarks. Then they moved across the rotunda to the Senate, where they booed Senate President Pro-Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and shouted, "Shame on you," apparently accidentally, as senators observed a moment of silence for Indy-Car driver Dan Wheldon, who died last month in a crash in Las Vegas.
The demonstration was reminiscent of this year's legislative session when union supporters rallied for months at the Statehouse, and Bauer led House Democrats on a five-week walkout even fleeing to Illinois to prevent action on a right-to-work bill and slow several other education and labor proposals.
Bauer said Tuesday that last year's action was a filibuster, not a walkout, and he didn't reject the possibility of doing it again in 2012. "We reserve the right to respond to a tyrannical majority the way it's been done since this country was founded," he said.
A new deterrent, however, could prevent lawmakers from staging a similar boy-cott. House and Senate Republicans approved a law near the end of this year's session that allows lawmakers to be fined $1,000 per day if they're absent without an excuse.
Rep. Tim Neese, R-Elkhart, said he likely will support a right-to-work bill in the 2012 session.
Neese said Indiana already is recognized nationally for having a strong business climate. "Right to work will be an added feature in making Indiana's economy even stronger," he said.
Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, said right to work is more than just an economics issue. He said it's about worker freedoms, too.
"I just don't feel that you should have to join an organization, an association or a union for your employment," he said. "That's just my philosophy."
Rep. David Niezgodski, a South Bend Democrat who sat on the legislative committee that studied right to work this past summer, said Republicans are misjudging how many people in Indiana want the law.
"I'm not sure they realize how big of a chunk they've bitten off," he said, "and I'm not sure they're going to be able to finish chewing it. There are a lot of people who don't believe this should the No. 1 priority for the ses-sion."
House Democrats have suggested boosting the state's economy by designating state funds for small business loans, allowing unemployment benefits to be used to subsidize pay for workers who otherwise would be laid off, giving priority to Hoosier workers on state-funded public works projects, giving low-income families vouchers to send their children to preschool and providing families with a tax deduction for education expenses.
Staff writer Kevin Allen: