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Indiana Legislature

November 20, 2011

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Indiana General Assembly ready to unleash 1,000-pound gorilla

INDIANAPOLIS — In just a few short weeks, the Indiana General Assembly kicks off what’s known as the “short session’’ — a fast romp of lawmaking that begins just after the New Year and ends, with a bang or a whimper, by the Ides of March.

You’d think after last session’s wild ride of contentious bills, boycotting members and rolling waves of protests that rocked the Statehouse, legislators wouldn’t be too keen on a sequel session of the Fight Club.

But as Senate President Pro Tem David Long told an audience in his home city of Fort Wayne last week, there’s a 1,000-pound gorilla about to be unleashed.

It goes by the name of “right to work” — a clever moniker that masks how messy the issue is.

The loaded label is shorthand for legislation that would ban agreements between unions and employers that require workers to pay union dues or fees as a condition of their employment. Labor leaders say it’s a union-killer in disguise.

It’s that piece of legislation, more than any other, that sent House Democrats packing about midway through the 2011 session. Its GOP backers pulled the bill back, but the union protesters who flooded the Statehouse with a noisy presence during the Dems’ five-week sojourn knew it would come rampaging back in 2012.

The verbal fisticuffs have already started: A between-sessions study committee tilted in the GOP’s favor voted 5-4 on partisan lines last month to push the legislature to pick the bill back up again. Bill backers argued that transforming Indiana into a “right to work” state would boost the state’s sex appeal to CEOs and site selectors on the prowl for a place to launch or expand a business.

Whether that argument has sticking power remains to be seen. Indiana’s Republican governor hasn’t taken it up. Instead, Gov. Mitch Daniels has been traveling the state with a PowerPoint presentation that shows Indiana already ranks near the top in various lists of business-friendly states, including those compiled by Site Selection and Chief Executive magazines.

Republicans dominate both chambers of the Statehouse, which makes it a lot easier for the them to get what they want. But backing the bill is not without peril going into the 2012 election year. Supporters risk the wrath of union members, many of whom helped put some Republicans into the Statehouse in the first place. Bill opponents set themselves up to be called job-killers by pro-business interests.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of speculation about whether House Democrats will step out again when the bill bubbles back up. They may be emboldened by what happened in Ohio in early November when voters there repealed a new law that curbed the collective bargaining rights of unions. Organized labor reportedly spent $24 million turning out the vote.

A hint of what’s to come in Indiana may come as soon as Tuesday (Nov. 22) when legislators meet for their largely ceremonial Organization Day. It’s also been declared “All Workers Lobby Day” by the Indiana State AFL-CIO, whose leaders are urging its members to turn out in force for the next round of the “right to work” fight.

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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