Can we reverse the labor setback in Indiana?

February 23, 2012

Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen explain why organized labor's strategy failed in stopping "right-to-work" legislation that passed in Indiana.

INDIANA'S REPUBLICAN-dominated legislature pushed through an anti-union "right to work" law just days before the country's attention focused on Indianapolis as the site of the Super Bowl.

Thousands of workers, social justice activists and community organizers repeatedly thronged the Statehouse in the weeks prior to the vote as lawmakers debated it. Protesters chanted, "Workers united will never be defeated," and "Union-busting is disgusting." They also chanted "Occupy the Super Bowl" in reference to the big game.

This last chant had particular significance, since Lucas Oil Stadium was built by union labor, as were other game-related structures around Indianapolis. The NFL Players Association had come out strongly against the right-to-work bill.

The bill was rushed through the legislature and signed into law by Indiana's millionaire governor, Mitch Daniels. As the news of the bill's passage leaked out, a loud demonstration of thousands of workers, led by the Indiana AFL-CIO, took to the streets, expressing their anger and disgust at this undemocratic bill. An estimated 20,000 workers protested at the Statehouse over the course of more than two weeks while the legislature deliberated on the bill.

Union members mobilized to Indianapolis to protest right-to-work legislation
Union members mobilized to Indianapolis to protest right-to-work legislation

With so much opposition to the bill, how could it pass?

To answer that question, it isn't enough to focus on the right-wing offensive. After all, that's a given.

The role of the Indiana AFL-CIO leadership in organizing the fightback against right-to-work has been disappointing, to say the least. The state federation currently represents more than 300,000 working people. It has drawn out big numbers before--for example, in March 2011, when more than 10,000 workers rallied at the Statehouse against a raft of right-wing bills, including a previous version of right-to-work and plans to bar federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Yet this year, labor's role has been a list of missed opportunities.

FIRST, WHEN local Occupy groups, together with several unions, called a rally January 28 to build against right-to-work, the AFL-CIO refused to back the event. Despite this official line, an impressive list of individual unions, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Communication Workers of America and local labor councils, endorsed the rally.

The rally became such a focus for rank-and-file anger that on the day of the event, three Democratic state representatives made an appearance and requested to speak. Ignoring the militant mood of the audience, the senators urged for the people to channel their anger towards the ballot box in November and vote the Republicans out. However, the loudest cheers at the rally were reserved for Occupy speakers and union radicals who called for direct action in workplaces or the streets.

Second, the Indiana AFL-CIO consistently ignored union members' militancy as the legislature debated the bill. Workers came from all over the state, carpooling on their own, to have a presence at the Statehouse. On some days, the lines to get into the building wound for more than two blocks.

All these people had images of Wisconsin on their mind, recalling how thousands of workers and students had occupied the state Capitol in Madison only a year earlier to protest a law targeting public-sector workers. The Indiana workers were undoubtedly also fuelled by the memory of how ordinary people stopped the Republicans in their tracks in Ohio by organizing a referendum last November to overturn legislation similar to Wisconsin's.

In contrast to last year's mobilization, Indiana AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott said only that right-to-work had to be defeated on the floors of the legislature. The state federation thus frittered away its membership's energy and anger.

Labor's call for a mass mobilization came only on the day union leaders knew the bill was about to be signed into law. Even then, the heads of the AFL-CIO waited obediently until the bill was actually voted through, and only then led a march in the streets in a demonstration that lasted less then half an hour and ruffled no feathers.

Last, but certainly not least, the Indiana AFL-CIO leadership decided to do nothing on Super Bowl Sunday.

When the world's eyes were on Indianapolis, labor had the opportunity to have a mass protest in which thousands of workers could have been mobilized into action. The group of Occupiers and labor activists who had organized the January 28 demonstration again appealed to the AFL-CIO to call for a demonstration on the day. But the Indiana AFL-CIO actively opposed any protest that day, calling it potentially "disruptive" to the Super Bowl. Right-to-work, claimed AFL-CIO President Guyott, had to be defeated at the ballot box in November.

Despite such instructions, the Occupiers and labor militants held a spirited protest on the steps of the Statehouse anyway. A group of workers came all the way from Wisconsin to show their solidarity.

Guyott's call to abandon protest in favor of the ballot box recalls the long and dispiriting history of union leaders limiting worker's self-activity and dampening working-class militancy in order to curry favors with the Democratic Party. And in Indiana, the state AFL-CIO's shift towards elections has the potential to damage the Occupy movement as well.

NATIONALLY, THE Occupy movement is at a crossroads. There are vigorous debates within the movement as to the way forward. Now that the encampments are gone, a handful of people are arguing that the way forward for Occupy is take bold decisive actions, like calling for a general strike--and if the unions do not see the wisdom of such action, then they should be ignored.

This is a dangerous position. The aim of Occupy--to take on the 1 percent--is really a class war declared on capitalism. And the class that can win this war is the working class. As Occupiers, we can take over public buildings or save individual families from being foreclosed. But only mass working class action can turn off the lights of a city, or stop the movement of goods.

The tie between labor and Occupy is thus crucial--but not for the reason given by liberals that the movement should be friendly with any group that looks progressive. Labor and Occupy is an alliance that can stop the motor of capitalism.

Labor militancy can be inspired by the actions and ideas of Occupy, and Occupy activists can learn from the history, struggle and collective power of the working class. That can lay the basis for the strikes and workplace occupations that can be decisive in defeating right-to-work and other anti-labor measures.

A good example of the potential for the labor-Occupy alliances was seen at the rally of 400 angry workers organized by Unite Here at the Indianapolis Hyatt Regency hotel, just two days after the passage of right-to-work and two days before the Super Bowl.

Occupy chapter members were important in galvanizing workers to participate in the rally. At the same time, the Occupiers who took part in the rally were reminded of the power of rank-and-file activism. Such well-conceived labor actions and direct actions, unifying disparate progressive forces, will be central to the next phase of struggle.

On a similar note, we should welcome the announcement by United Auto Workers President Bob King that he wants union members and supporters to train for engagement in nonviolent direct action this spring. This is the kind of symbiosis that we need to develop between labor and Occupy.

Unfortunately, the Indiana AFL-CIO undercut labor-Occupy solidarity by branding protests by militant union members and Occupiers as "disruptive." Similarly, statements by some leftists groups such as the Black Orchid Collective denouncing unions are harmful to the labor-Occupy alliance.

What we don't need in Indiana today is the AFL-CIO yet again limiting members' potential and turning it toward the passive act of voting Democrat. What we do need is deeper links between Occupy chapters and local labor militants.

This will not be achieved by either denouncing AFL-CIO leadership or by toeing their line of electoral change. Instead, as Occupiers and labor activists, we should be trying to launch a joint movement. This will strengthen the militancy of the union rank and file and give Occupiers the chance to understand the true power and potential of labor action.

These are the sort of connections that have the potential to overturn right-to-work--and better still, to rebuild fighting unions in this state. The Occupy movement has raised vital questions about capitalism--and a strong worker's movement can answer them.

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