Indiana’s war on labor

January 4, 2012

Shaun Harkin looks at the background to an attempt by Indiana legislators to push through right-to-work legislation as a top priority in the new year.

REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS in Indiana have declared that their war on unions and working-class rights will continue in the new year by announcing that passage of so-called "right-to-work" legislation will be a priority for them in 2012.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) and Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne) said identical laws would be introduced in the House and Senate when they convene in January.

Bosma described the legislative drive as "the beginning of the freedom campaign for Hoosier workers." He added:

While we are the envy of the Midwest in our job creation efforts, economic development experts tell us that removing the last barriers to job creation in our state will help the quarter of a million unemployed Hoosiers get back to work. That is why my top priority this session is to make Indiana the 23rd right-to-work state in the nation.

A right-to-work law really guarantees only the "right" to work for less money and fewer rights on the job. It prohibits employers and workers in a unionized workplace from negotiating a "union security clause"--contract language that requires all workers who receive the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement pay their "fair share" of the costs of union representation. Right-to-work supporters aim to undermine union contracts by allowing employers to encourage workers not to become union members.

Marching to defend labor in Indiana during last year's fight against union-busting legislation
Marching to defend labor in Indiana during last year's fight against union-busting legislation

The proposed Indiana law is part of a raft of anti-union legislation proposed by Republicans since the 2010 elections, when they took control of state legislatures and governor mansions across the country. Backed by pro-business think thanks such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the billionaire Koch brothers, they launched an nationally coordinated assault on labor rights by attempting to legislate hard-won unions rights out of existence for public-sector workers.

Despite a mass labor protest in Wisconsin, the laws passed in that state, and Ohio legislators passed a similar law that was later overturned by voters in a referendum. In Michigan, legislators passed a law giving unelected emergency financial managers to tear up union contracts with public-sector workers.

But in Indiana, similar Republican efforts went nowhere. In February 2011, Democratic lawmakers left Indiana for Illinois, making it impossible for Republicans to pass new laws without a quorum. The Democrats fled the state in response to a massive mobilization of union members and supporters, led by steelworkers and teachers, to the state Capitol in Indianapolis to fight a package of anti-union legislative initiatives.

Thus, after five weeks of protests across the state, Republicans agreed to drop their right-to-work legislation and pledged not to pass a law that would make permanent the state's existing ban on collective-bargaining rights for state workers.

HOWEVER, INDIANA Republicans' assault on workers' rights didn't go into hibernation. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who in the past claimed to oppose right-to-work laws, has declared the legislation will pass in the 2012 session, his final year in office.

Indiana labor responded November 22, when thousands of union members mobilized to the state Capitol to oppose Daniels' efforts. Some 700 members of the United Steel Workers (USW) joined the protests.

USW District 7 Director Jim Robinson described the mood among union members in Indiana: "Union members in Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere are standing up and fighting back...We're ready for this fight in Indiana, and we'll keep coming back to the statehouse until they get the message that we will not back down or go away."

Daniels' war on unions started on his first day in office in 2005, when he banned collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers through an executive order. A poll commissioned by the Indiana State Federation of Labor and the AFL-CIO by Hart Research and Associates found that 47 percent of Indiana voters opposed right-to-work legislation, while 39 percent supported it. The poll also concluded that 67 percent of voters opposed making "right to work" a top legislative priority.

The 2011 anti-union blitz was concentrated across the Midwest was concentrated where unions have been historically strong. However, their presence and power has been weakened in the so-called rust belt over several decades, through a combination of decline in industrial unions and conservative leadership.

In 1989, unions represented 21 percent of the Indiana workforce. But by 2010, Indiana union's membership had declined to about 10.9 percent of the workforce, or 279,000 workers across the state, including 170,000 public sector workers.

Now, with states struggling for jobs and investment, advocates of right-to-work laws have been on the offensive. For example, they contend that right-to-work laws will increase "democracy" in the workplace by giving workers more of a voice. They claim that workers will be "liberated" from making compulsory contributions to political campaigns with their union dues. And, finally, with unions out of the way, struggling states will attract more business investment, they say.

Never mind that in 2011 Indiana was ranked number one in the Midwest and sixth in the country to do business in by Chief Executive magazine.

Right-to-work laws are nothing more than a dressed-up union-busting campaign. Without union representation, workers have no voice, no way of challenging the dictates of management, no job security and no means of using their collective organization to fight for better conditions. Without a union, workers must rely on extremely weak federal and state employment laws that make it easy for companies to fire workers for any reason.

The AFL-CIO documents the reality of right-to-work laws at its website, pointing out that in right-to-work states, workers earn less, have fewer rights on the job and have less ability to enforce safety regulations. Overall, labor rights are much weaker for all workers, unionized or not. In addition, poverty rates tend to be higher in right-to-work states.

Today, there are 22 states, mostly concentrated in the South and West, with right-to-work laws. As labor activist and author Kim Moody points out in his book U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, "union density in the South averages 5.8 percent compared with 15.5 percent in the Northeast, 16.3 percent in the Midwest, and 16 percent on the West Coast."

The persistence of right-to-work laws and intense racism have been central obstacles to increasing union power in the South, where employers have used the legacy of slavery and racism to keep unions weak.

For decades, unions have failed to systemically implement strategies in right-to-work states that could significantly shift the balance of union membership there. And in recent decades, the South has also become the site of renewed industrial investment, precisely because employers have sought regions with lower wages and weaker union clout. For that reason, defeating "right to work" in Indiana will be crucial to stopping the spread of sweatshop conditions from the South to the North.

Oklahoma was the last state to pass right-to-work legislation in 2001, but Republicans are trying to make up for lost time. However, right to work was defeated in New Hampshire last November when supporters failed to win a two-thirds majority needed in the House of Representatives to overturn a May veto by Governor John Lynch.

Anti-union forces suffered another setback in Ohio in the November 2011 elections, when voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum that overturned legislation that barred public-sector unions from meaningful collective bargaining. In response, the union-bashers are pushing a right-to-work referendum that would "guarantee the freedom of Ohioans to choose whether to participate in a labor organization as a condition of employment."

THE CURRENT struggle over union rights in the U.S. is only the latest battle in a long war. U.S. employers have viciously fought for "open shop" workplaces and draped their goals in the language of individual freedoms and the U.S. Constitution.

A shift in labor's direction came in 1933, when Section 7(a) of the Roosevelt administration's National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) granted workers the legal right to organize their workplace. The clause stipulated that "employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers."

Passage of this legislation reinforced the already growing efforts of workers to fight for unions amid U.S. working class radicalized by the Great Depression. In 1933, four times as many workers went on strike compared to the previous year, and the numbers rose further in 1934.

The passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or Wagner Act in 1935 codified the legal rights of workers to organize for unionization and challenge the often-violent resistance of employers. Union membership soared from 3.4 million in 1930 to 10 million in 1942 and 16 million in 1952.

The employers struck back with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, an amendment to the NLRA that fortified employer opposition to unions. The act made a "closed shop" illegal and encouraged individual states to pursue right-to-work legislation against "union shop" agreements.

In her book Subterranean Fire, Sharon Smith explains the wide-ranging implications of Taft-Hartley and the renewed emphasis on right to work laws. Taft-Hartley, she noted:

...officially titled the Labor-Management Relations Act, outlawed wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts, and mass picketing. It required all union officials to sign affidavits stating they were not members of the Communist Party and had no relationship with any organization seeking the "overthrow of the United States government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means."

Taft-Hartley allowed states to pass laws banning the closed union shop, in a goodwill gesture to Southern employers. The president of the United States was given authority to impose an eighty-day "cooling-off period" on strikes that threatened the "national interest." Moreover, Taft-Hartley held union organizations and their leaders legally responsible-that is, subject to lawsuits-for damages incurred by wildcat strikes or any other 'breach of contract."

Employer opposition to unions reached new levels in the 1980s as the U.S. ruling class attempted to increase profitability rates for corporations. Taft-Hartley was a key element in their strategy.

Today, employers in the public sector have attempted to use the recession to demonize unions and destroy collective bargaining at a time when unions are more crucial than ever in fighting to save jobs and opposing cuts in wages and benefits. This is why opposing right to work legislation is key.

However, legislation on its own has never built the labor movement. The initiative has always come from workers demanding the right to organize, a voice in the workplace and redistribution of wealth, who have been willing to strike, sit-in and defend picket lines to win.

Pushing back on right-to-work legislation can play an important role in renewing workers confidence in Indiana to defend their unions and resist employer demands for concessions and prepare the ground to organize the unorganized. It's a fight we can win.

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