Labor’s stand in Indianapolis

February 7, 2012

Bill Mullen reports on the inspiring actions of labor and Occupy activists in response to the passage of anti-union "right-to-work" legislation in Indiana.

THOUSANDS OF angry workers from across the State of Indiana marched into the State House February 1 to protest the legislature's passage of HB 1001, so-called "right-to-work" legislation that curtails the rights of unions in the state.

Workers yelled "No right to work" outside state Senate chambers during final deliberations on the legislation and carried signs that read "RTW is a Super Bowl of Crack to Republicans." The reference was to the Super Bowl game played on February 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, a building built almost entirely by union labor. The game, which generated millions of dollars for Indiana businesses, became the backdrop for a weeklong labor war on the streets.

Indiana became the 23rd state in the nation to pass right-to-work legislation. The bill was rushed through the legislature by backers eager to shut off discussion of a public referendum on the measure, which was proposed by Democrats and backed by many labor movement officials in the state. Republicans also admitted they wanted to pass the bill quickly to close off the Super Bowl as a vehicle for labor protest.

Union supporters at a rally called by UNITE HERE against the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis
Union supporters at a rally called by UNITE HERE against the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis (Bill Mullen | SW)

Outrage and disgust were the themes put forward by rank-and-file workers after the vote.

"It's corporate greed," said Terry Farmer, a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 305. Farmer blamed corporate and business backing of the legislation from Indiana and out of state. "They have money to spend on politics but not on wages for workers," he said.

"They are trying to destroy democracy in the workplace," said Len Labundy, a retired pipefitter from Fort Wayne whose mother was a civil rights worker. Labundy said attacks on workers now remind him of attacks on civil rights activists in the 1950s.

Studies of right-to-work legislation by the Economic Policy Institute have shown that such legislation reduces wages by $1,500 a year and lowers the chance that union and non-union employees receive health care coverage or pensions through their jobs. Workers after the right-to-work vote said repeatedly that the legislation was also likely to hinder workplace safety by skirting union regulations on worker training and safety.

At the same time, Indiana workers expressed confidence that workplace solidarity would remain high, and that few workers would choose to forfeit paying their union dues, something encouraged by right-to-work.

INDIANA WORKERS have been coming to the State House to protest the proposed legislation since December, when supporters of the legislation made clear their intentions to pass it. Protests included a January 28 rally and march through Super Bowl Village organized by Occupy Purdue and a number of labor locals and Occupy chapters across the state.

The Indiana AFL-CIO encouraged workers to speak out against right-to-work legislation, but only called for a mass mobilization on the day of the vote.

At a rally after the vote, Indiana AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott suggested that Republican backers of the legislation would be a target for labor in elections in November. Rank-and-file union members seemed to support this position. "We need to get our feet on the street and get people out of office" who supported right-to-work, said Laura Eckert, the head of a union family in Fort Wayne.

The AFL-CIO also promised to use the Super Bowl as an opportunity to educate citizens about right-to-work by distributing leaflets at the game, while releasing a statement that it would not disrupt Super Bowl weekend.

The contrast between the AFL-CIO's moderation and labor anger on the streets could not have been clearer than in a swirling rally of 400 people two days after the right-to-work vote on February 3. The rally, organized by UNITE HERE, was in support of 140 Hyatt Regency hotel workers currently represented in a class-action lawsuit filed against 10 Indianapolis Hotels, including the Hyatt.

Indianapolis is the only major city in the U.S. without a unionized hotel. Wages for Indianapolis hotel workers are among the lowest in the nation, according to Mike Biskar with UNITE HERE. The class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on January 9 is against Hospitality Staffing Solutions (HSS) and 10 major hotels, and alleges wage and hour violations.

HSS is a national subcontracting company based in Atlanta. It is essentially a temp agency for hotel workers. The lawsuit alleges that HSS and the hotels named in the suit failed to pay workers for hours they worked, and forced them to work off the clock and without breaks. The suit also alleges that current contracts between hotel employers and HSS create an unfair monopoly power of HSS over hotel labor.

On January 19, according to UNITE HERE, the Hyatt Regency announced that 20 Hyatt workers hired through HSS would be dismissed on February 8, just three days after the Super Bowl. UNITE HERE's rally was called in part to demand that the Hyatt hire the subcontracted workers directly.

Anger ran high at Friday's rally: 400 whistle-blowing, multiracial UNITE HERE activists were joined by workers from the United Auto Workers, AFSCME, Service Employees International Union and the Communication Workers of America. Demonstrators marched and chanted "No justice, no peace," while inside, the Hyatt Super Bowl lodgers ran on treadmills, clinked glasses and paid $950 per night.

"The Hyatt is battleground zero," said Karl Frederickson, a 12-year former Hyatt employee. Frederickson was named nine times to Hyatt's "all-star" team for distinguished employees. He was fired from his position on December 6, 2011 for "sleeping on the job," he said.

While working at Hyatt, Frederickson was actively involved in a campaign begun by UNITE HERE in 2008 to bring union representation to hotel workers. He says his firing was "without a doubt" a result of union activism.

Frederickson described an atmosphere of secrecy and intimidation inside the Hyatt and a management that used subcontractors like HSS to keep wages down and bust the prospects of a union. "It's like being on a plantation," he said of work conditions.

Frederickson said he joined the rally Friday because he sees the hotel workers' fight in Indianapolis as part of a larger battle against union-busting strategies like right to work.

That view was shared by Larry Brier, a cook and UNITE HERE member at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, who traveled to the rally in solidarity. Brier said of the recent right-to-work legislation passed in Indiana: "It sucks. [Indiana Gov. Mitch] Daniels worked with Bush in Washington. They are responsible for this economic fraud."

At the rally, DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), which opposes right-to-work, spoke in solidarity with the workers, and reiterated the NFLPA's ongoing boycott of Hyatt hotels because of its attitude toward unions.

THE AFL-CIO's explicit warning against "disruptive" labor protests during Super Bowl weekend conceded to the economic and political juggernaut that the Super Bowl has become. Last year's game generated $200 million in business for host city Dallas. Indianapolis expected similar returns, and Republican legislators expedited passage of legislation in order to head off possible labor action aimed at influencing the outcome.

The protest void was filled by 125 trade unionists and Occupy activists from across the Midwest who protested on Super Bowl Sunday. Union workers from Milwaukee, Chicago and across Indiana joined with Occupy activists from as far away as Cincinnati to continue the protest against right-to-work. Many of the unionists who attended the rally underscored the need for solidarity between Occupy and the labor movement in the face of regional attacks on labor in Wisconsin, Ohio and now Indiana.

Neal Smith, a steward of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 700 said he had come to the rally because the state legislature and media ignored the voice of workers in the right-to-work debate. Smith is an active member of Occupy Indianapolis and said he believes solidarity between Occupy and labor is crucial. "We are all in this together," he said.

Kenny Holcomb, a member of Ironworkers Local 72 in Indianapolis, felt a personal sense of betrayal by passage of right-to-work legislation. Holcomb pointed to the J.W. Marriott Hotel down the street from the State House and Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Super Bowl was to be played just hours later, and said, "I built at those sites. But I can't afford to go the events. I can't even afford to park."

Holcomb said he also felt inspired by the coalition of Occupy and organized labor at the rally. "We're both fighting corporate greed," he said. "It's the same thing by a different name."

Randy Bryce, political coordinator for Ironworkers Local 8, based in Milwaukee, Wis., agreed. He had driven more than 270 miles to take part in the rally. He said he saw the attack on labor in Indiana as a direct parallel to Gov. Scott Walker's assaults in Wisconsin. "I got involved in Occupy Milwaukee because it's all about getting money out of politics," he said. "People need to be heard."

Later at the open mic portion of the rally, Bryce called for nonviolent resistance to attacks on labor, but said, "Peace doesn't mean we have to shut up."

The crowd's response to the out-of-state show of solidarity was immediate. "Tahrir Square to Wisconsin--we will fight, we will win," it chanted.

The rally was punctuated by a stirring street theater performance scripted by Central Indiana Jobs with Justice member Amy Shackelford. The performance featured workers suffering from right-to-work "syndromes "like lack of adequate health care on the job, unequal pay for women workers and loss of workers' pensions. The performance culminated with the appearance of a doctor clad in white medical coat, who resurrected each fallen worker with the cry, "I have the cure here--it is solidarity!"

In honor of Super Bowl Sunday, the rally even included its own cheerleading team for the 99 percent. The "Rowdy Racoon Radical Cheerleaders" included members of Occupy Bloomington. As with organized labor at the rally, Occupy chapters representing three Midwest states and more than half a dozen cities demonstrated that the scope of solidarity in the Midwest is widening.

One idea already in discussion among Occupy and labor activists in Indiana is for a summit meeting this spring to discuss strategies for building stronger ties to respond to the Midwest wave of anti-labor reaction. These efforts will become even more urgent as labor leadership and the Democrats seek to steer popular anger against right-to-work legislation into removing Republicans in the November elections.

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