Labor troubles in Indiana
Organized labor suffered blows earlier this year in two Midwestern states where it once boasted strongholds of industrial power--in Indiana, where Republicans succeeded in their drive to push through right-to-work legislation last January, and in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker won a recall election in June, despite a mobilization of unions whose leaders said they were carrying on the struggle after the uprising against Walker's union-busting law in winter 2011., a labor studies professor at Indiana University, analyzes what's at stake for the state's labor movement in the November election.
IN THE wake of a stinging defeat for organized labor in the Wisconsin recall election, the finger-pointing on the left has been fierce.
Critics of organized labor's recall strategy have been hit with the Cold War-sounding charge of "left anti-unionism." Defenders of the recall strategy made legitimate points regarding the influence of corporate cash and the problems of unions carrying out a direct action campaign in a climate of fear and insecurity.
Considering the stakes, the reaction is not surprising. While it is true that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker kept his office by a fairly slim margin and anti-union legislation was overturned by voter referendum in Ohio, the combination of unlimited corporate cash and an emboldened right makes this election cycle a potential watershed moment for American workers.
But as elections approach, perhaps the key battleground for testing the various theories being debated regarding the Wisconsin defeat will not be the re-election of President Obama, but rather the electoral strategy of organized labor in Indiana.
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THIS PAST February, Indiana became a "right-to-work" state when lawmakers passed anti-union legislation that criminalized the basic dues collection process in private-sector unions.
The assault on private-sector collective bargaining rights was only the latest in a series of blows against Indiana workers dating back, in its present phase, to the election of Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2005. Upon entering office, Daniels eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees, and in 2010, a newly elected Republican majority launched a legislative assault on both private- and public-sector workers. The attack on the public sector took the form of legislation promoting charter schools and weakening collective bargaining, while private-sector workers faced the above-mentioned "right-to-work" bill and proposed laws rolling back fair-contracting and living-wage laws.
Union-backed Indiana Democratic Assembly members, following the example of Wisconsin Senate Democrats, left the state for an Illinois hotel, denying the needed quorum, while labor mobilized members and supporters for daily demonstrations at the Indianapolis statehouse.
While the assault on Indiana teachers continued, the anti-union private sector bill was "tabled" in the 2011 session, with no promise that it would not be immediately revived in the next year's session. Republicans signaled their intent by including information sessions on anti-union laws in the Summer 2011 "education" sessions. In the meantime, Indiana's labor unions engaged in little organizing of new support, and undertook a fairly tepid mobilization of members and supporters that included informational sessions on what the new proposed law would do to Indiana unions.
Unsurprisingly, the bill was re-introduced as the new session opened, with several Republicans calling it their highest priority. On the union end, even after the 2011 fight, many Indiana working people had little idea what was happening, and saw no reason why labor's fight was their fight. In Southern Indiana, organized labor largely failed to connect the fight against right-to-work to other issues, and many members of the public had no idea what right-to-work meant. What was more surprising to me, based on talking to people at various forums, was how many union members had little understanding of the issue.
As the vote neared in January 2012, daily rallies were held at the statehouse, as in 2011. While some activist groups, including Occupy participants, urged direct actions, Indiana labor preferred the traditional approach, appealing to potentially undecided legislators in concert with orderly mass gatherings at the statehouse. While the numbers were adequate for the rallies, the spirit that infused Madison, and even Indianapolis in 2011, was clearly missing, say participants.
As the vote neared, it became obvious to many that the focus on "lobbying" and trying to bring electoral pressure on a few fence-sitting Republicans was going to fail. For many activists critical of organized labor, the key moment was the timing of the bills passage. Right-to-work passed both houses and went to Daniels' desk in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. By an odd and ironic convergence, the big game was being held for the first time in Indianapolis, at a retractable dome stadium built largely by union labor.
Activists were urged by labor leaders not to "disrupt" the big game, and instead to concentrate on the electoral strategy. While it isn't certain that direct action civil disobedience at either the statehouse or the Super Bowl could have stopped anti-union legislation, or that Indiana's progressive/labor community could have pulled off mass direct action, the lack of any alternative to an electoral strategy was clear.
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WHEN KEY moments arrived in the Indiana fight, the years and decades of business unionism and the lack of an activist, organizing culture were painfully obvious. Many labor leaders and rank-and-file activists made heroic efforts and worked tirelessly to rally the troops and the state against right-to-work. They continue to work tirelessly to represent Indiana union members and are to be commended for their efforts and for their ongoing leadership.
But two things are clear: one, the lack of a true activist culture centered on non-electoral forms of direct action to rally workers to the cause has left Indiana unions with no alternative than an electoral strategy based on support of a state Democratic Party that is lukewarm to labor's needs at best. And second, in our current climate of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the idea that Indiana unions are going to "flip" the legislature and capture the governor's office without having first laid the years of groundwork in community coalition building is a long-shot at best.
Republicans, led by Mitch Daniels, have done an excellent job of spreading anti-union sentiment, encouraging resentment against union members in the private and public sector. In the midst of this anti-union assault, organized labor in Indiana is trying to quickly make up for years of falling membership and a union culture that has little recent tradition of militancy and community-based solidarity.
Indiana's fight to repeal right-to-work through the ballot box presents a genuine opportunity to examine the problems facing organized labor here and around the country and put the relationship between unions, workers, progressive activists and the Democratic Party under the microscope. If Indiana labor's electoral strategy fails, those who have been termed left anti-unionists will have more ammunition for their argument that labor unions are isolated, without allies and without a plan.
At this point, it is hard to imagine that the electoral effort to flip the Indiana legislature and capture the statehouse will yield positive results. But we should be cautious in drawing simple conclusions from a complex situation. The task of winning a majority and the governor's race is a tall order, particularly in state without a clear progressive tradition. But union activists and labor supporters are working hard to turn the electoral tide.
However, if, as some are predicting, Republican extremists take the statehouse by actually gaining seats in the legislature, Indiana unions will suffer, and the electoral strategy--and, indeed, labor's connection to the Democratic Party, as well as the business model--will all be subject to close scrutiny. Maybe more than close scrutiny, the time might be ripe for a collective move to more aggressive, long-term organizing and the re-building of alliances, as well as new organizing strategies that include the unemployed, underemployed, temp workers and service workers.
Indiana is not Wisconsin. The state is more conservative, and there is no single polarizing figure like Walker. But the decision to pursue an electoral strategy connected to the Democratic Party makes it an excellent test case for the state of labor today. Unions and workers will not live and die based on the results of the attempt to roll back right-to-work in Indiana. But a serious defeat, and failure to capitalize by building new alliances of resistance may cause the heartbeat of Midwest labor to flat line. We'll see in November.