News Story

Indiana Senate Committee Passes Right-to-Work Bill; Unions Protest While Democrats Boycott

A dispatch from Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS — After nearly six hours of testimony and debate, the Indiana state Senate Pensions and Labor Committee approved Senate Bill 269 by a 6-to-4 vote. Commonly referred to as a "right-to-work" law, SB 269 would make it a Class A misdemeanor to require an individual to join or remain in a union or to pay any dues, fees or other charges to that same labor organization. The bill now goes to the full state Senate, despite the continued absence of a House quorum in the intended joint committee meeting between the House Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Senate Pensions and Labor Committee.

No amendments were allowed in the hearing.

The House and Senate will be called back into session again on Monday. Republican proponents intend to pass the bill in the Senate by the end of next week, but await boycotting Democratic House members for the progression of the bill’s discussion.

All those who voted in favor of the bill were Republicans; all those who voted against the bill were Democrats save Republican Sen. Brent Waltz. In 2004, Sen. Waltz defeated Senate Finance Chairman Larry Borst, whose campaign was partially funded by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber testified in favor of right-to-work today.

“It’s kind of a personal vendetta, best I can tell. He’s a businessman; he normally would vote for it,” said Republican Sen. Dennis Kruse, who voted in favor of the bill’s passage today.

Sen. Waltz could not be reached for comment at the time of this story.

The hearing was held in the House Commons so as to accommodate the pro-union crowd. A limited number of seats were available to protestors via the viewing balcony, and Indiana State Police allowed people to take turns. Many others crowded outside the room, listening through a speaker; still others manned the outside of the Capitol building. As pro-right-to-work speakers exited the building after testimony, they were booed and heckled by the surrounding crowd.

Republican Sen. Phil Boots, committee chairman, started the hearing by saying: “Some of us can probably recite what [this] testimony will be,” referring to the 20-plus hours of discussion devoted to right-to-work legislation during the summer session. This was undoubtedly a response to opponents who claimed the committee was trying to hurry the bill and bypass normal procedures. Sen. Boots clarified that this was not the case, but “[the intended joint hearing]’s purpose was to consolidate testimony.”

Republican Sen. Carlin Yoder is the author of the bill and its chief advocate along with Republican Rep. Jerry Torr. Sen. Yoder expressed his belief that right-to-work legislation is imperative to improve Indiana’s 9 percent unemployment, saying, “We need to help those people who are out of work.” Rep. Torr, who has been pushing right-to-work legislation since 2004, said along similar lines, “There needs to be 'an enforcement mechanism' against mandated union charges on non-members of unions.

Opponents of the legislation include Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian, who voted against the bill, saying, "We have a great place to work, and we don’t need this anti-union bill to make it better."

Proponents argue that unions will stay as strong as ever but be held more accountable to their members. Sen. Kruse said that if the aggressive legislation limiting teachers unions’ collective bargaining to wages and some select benefits in 2011 is any indication, unions don’t have to fear an automatic loss of members.

“I don’t think there’s one less teacher union member because of those bills…if anything I think the union might have gained a few members," he said.

Sen. Kruse said he has personal history with unions.

“I did work in a union shop one time when I got out of high school," he said. "I’ve had first-hand experience working as a union worker…I didn’t think they were needed then; I think they’re needed even less today.”

Gathered protestors disagree, saying that job loss will inevitably follow if the legislation becomes law. A member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150-District 7 who wished to remain nameless, said, “You have [proponents] go down south to Arkansas, they got that right-to-work down there; you see how those people live, they can’t make it because the other companies come from different states and they take their work.”

The International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150 represents more than 23,000 people in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, according to its Facebook page. It is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The group sponsored phone banks from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday in opposition to the bill.

Jim Schorg, media relations director for the Indiana House Democrats, said it’s important to remember that the House cannot take action until there is a quorum. “We’re still in a holding pattern on the second [bill],” adding, “I’m sure there will be every effort made to compel our attendance.”

Republicans hold a 60-40 majority in the state House, but a two-thirds majority is necessary for any floor votes to be taken. A $1,000-a-day fine could be imposed shortly on absent legislators. Democratic state representatives could lose their entire supplemental legislative salary of $12,000 if absent for two weeks. 

Schorg also explained that the House Democrats feel that the meeting itself, which showcased several taunts and union applause, is probably a reflection of the general public input. The House Democrats announced today that they will hold free public meetings around the state with union members and Democratic legislators; one is set for Saturday in Fort Wayne and the other two will occur Sunday in Gary and Evansville.

One of the recipients of the greatest amount of pro-union epithets was a Danish-American businessman who owns a paddle boat-manufacturing company in Indiana. In his testimony in favor of the Senate bill, he said, “Unions are afraid of competition…if the unions are good, then they will succeed. That’s the American way.” His words were greeted by shouts of “Go home” from the viewing deck.

A common argument among opponents of the right-to-work bill was the comparison of union membership with U.S. citizenship. When a steelworker stated, “I’m an American…you don’t have the right not to pay taxes,” he was greeted with riotous applause.

Keith E. Busse, CEO of Steel Dynamics in Fort Wayne which is the fifth largest steelmaker in the country, testified in favor of the bill. 

“The issue for me…is rather about free choice.” Attesting that right-to-work was a factor in dissuading companies to bring their business to Indiana, he said, “This right-to-work bill will matter. It will greatly matter…you can’t have a great country unless you make things.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.