If there was any doubt about how the next session of the Indiana General Assembly was going to play out, legislative leaders cleared that up with a dose of hot rhetoric Monday.
Starting the verbal fisticuffs: A hastily called press conference in which the top two GOP leaders in the House and Senate declared that making Indiana a “right to work” state will be their top legislative priority for the 2012 session, which begins Jan. 4.
House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate Pro Tem President David Long announced plans to file identical bills that would ban Indiana employers from negotiating contracts with labor unions that require workers to pay union dues as part of their employment.
A “right to work‚” bill filed in the last session set off a five-week boycott by House Democrats and filled the Statehouse with angry union protesters who dubbed it the legislation the “right to work for less.”
The bill was pulled and was expected to return in the 2012 session, but the way it was laid back on the table Monday came as a surprise.
Long said making Indiana the 23rd state with a “right to work” law would remove the “final barrier” to the state’s economic prosperity, while Bosma declared: “Today the campaign for the freedom of workers begins.”
Those are fighting words for Indiana Democrats and labor leaders.
House Minority Leader Pat Bauer, a South Bend Democrat, called the GOP plan an assault on workers.
He said Statehouse Democrats would act to stop what he described as legislation that “could be the eventual decline and fall” of the Indiana economy.
Nancy Guyott, the president of the Indiana AFL-CIO issued a statement scorning Bosma’s words. “It’s laughable that Republican leaders in the Statehouse actually have the gall to cite ‘freedom’ in their renewed push for the so-called ‘right to work’ law given that its already the law of the land that no one can be forced to join a union,” she said.
The Republican leaders started their press conference just an hour before House Democrats were scheduled to unveil their top legislative priorities.
The latter press conference proceeded as scheduled, with Bauer laying out an ambitious agenda for a minority caucus.
The South Bend Democrat said his members would push for:
• tax credits for small businesses to hire unemployed workers
• more money for early childhood education
• a sales tax holiday and other tax breaks for middle class families
• a ban on “pay-to-play” by barring contractors from making political donations
• and a provision to give Hoosier workers preference for jobs created by state contracts.
But the talk of the day was about the “right to work” proposal and its proposers.
At an Indiana Chamber of Commerce luncheon where Statehouse leaders were asked to give a preview of the upcoming session, both Long and Bosma defended the decision to put the contentious issue back on center stage. Bosma said, “Nothing important happens without a lot of intense conversation.”
But Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, a Bloomington Democrat, was sharply critical of the GOP leaders and criticized them for failing to brief Democratic leaders in the House and Senate about their decision to push “right to work” to the top of the agenda.
“You have to wonder about what that means for the future of this legislative session,” Simpson said.
Legislators may get a taste of it today when both chambers convene for their ceremonial Organization Day. The state’s labor leaders have called for union members and supporters to turn out in force to protest the “right to work” legislation.
Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at email@example.com.