January 11, 2012The proposed "Right to Work" bill, an issue that has the two political parties in Indianapolis pretty much split, has been brought to the front burner by Republicans, making it the primary focus as soon as the new legislative session opened after the holidays. Democrats, who are outnumbered in both the House and Senate, are seeking to delay action on the bill to allow more public input, citing recent polls showing almost half of all Hoosiers are undecided about the issue.
Last Wednesday, Right to Work legislation opponents showed up at the Statehouse in mass. Some estimates put the turnout of those protesting as high as 8,000, mostly workers from various trade groups and union members from all over the state.
The protesters, many dressed in their work clothes — coveralls and Carhartt coats, formed a wide, long line along two sides of the Statehouse. They held signs and banners denouncing Right to Work as a way to lower wages and workers' benefits.
Robert Dunn, a retired union worker, braves the cold last Wednesday in Indianapolis to protest the “Right to Work” legislation Republicans are pushing.
The freezing temperatures and wind numbed faces and fingers, and as some pulled off gloves to shake hands, there was little doubt that they were the callused and scarred hands of men who worked hard. Some looked as if they had just left their jobs, their coveralls covered with holes, burnt there by the sparks from welders. Others had almost bright red faces, burnt by the harsh northern Indiana winds as they worked to erect the steel of a new building under construction. And some were older men, retired, there to support their unions and their sons who were still working.
"I have two sons working now," said Robert Dunn, of Indianapolis, a retired union worker. "The oldest one works for the union and the other works for a fast-food restaurant, so I can see both sides of the issue. My dad and grandfather were both union workers, so my family has always been able to make a living. But you can't live on what McDonald's and other low-paying places pay their employees. You either have to get help from your family or sign up for food stamps. Is that the kind of workforce they want in Indiana, with everyone getting food stamps in order to feed their family?
"Our politicians are selling us out for this Right to Work crap. That big beautiful building they work in here (the Statehouse) was built by union workers. The cars they drive were made by union workers. The plumbing and electricity in their homes were probably installed by union workers. And now, they want to cut our throats and give our jobs to the lowest bidder. And no politician should be able to tell me I can't belong to a workers' union or have a union represent me. The Republicans have named this Right to Work, but it should be called 'Right to Bust Unions and Pay Less.' "
An ongoing blare of horns from passing cars and trucks in support of the workers brought waves and thumbs-up from those on the outside edge of the lines, next to the street. Both Crawford and Harrison counties were well represented as scores of union workers from each showed up to oppose the bill.
"It would be completely wrong for this Right to Work law to pass," Bill Grider, of Crawford County, said. "There's a lot of workers in our area who are union members. Some of the best jobs in the whole area are union jobs. And they want to take those away, to make it where unions can't survive. Who does this law benefit? Certainly not working people. The best paid workers in Crawford County are union workers who work outside the county and bring their paychecks back to the county. Who would benefit if those were gone?"
Most workers in the line had a similar message.
"All those Tea Party Republicans who were elected last time didn't mention anything about supporting Right to Work during their campaigns," said Tim Gladdin, who lives near Georgetown. "But as soon as Rhonda Rhoads and the others got to Indianapolis, they teamed up with the National Right to Work Committee, the Chamber of Commerce and the economic development groups to break unions and make wages lower for workers. Those groups have spent a lot of money in Indiana to be sure the law passes and living standards are dropped to the level of Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation. They've sent a lot of our jobs overseas so they could get cheap labor, now they always hold that threat over our heads in order to pay us less. This is about greed and politics. Nothing more, nothing less."
By mid-morning, House Democrats used the only method available to them to slow the bill down: they left the chamber and met in a nearby conference room, denying the Republicans the quorum needed to move the bill forward. Union representatives scurried to set up meetings with Republican representatives in hopes of changing their stand on the issue but were unsuccessful. A handful of union stewards from companies in District 74, that includes Crawford County, were able to set up a meeting that afternoon with Republican Sue Ellspermann, who represents the district.
"We know where you stand on this Right to Work issue," one of the union stewards told Ellspermann. "We're here with the steelworkers and UAW, and we want you to know that we're dead-set against this bill, and there's a lot of us who live and work in your district. Why is this bill more important to you than your constituents?"
"I can't look at what a few people want," Ellspermann replied. "I have to look at what will benefit 100 percent of the people. Right to Work won't dissolve your union, and it won't affect your current pay."
"Maybe not," another union steward said. "We have a contract. But what about that next contract? What about the younger workers. This bill will cut off the money we need to operate and will eventually kill our labor unions and take away our voice. We took a $4-an-hour pay cut to save jobs, and the company wanted us to take an $8 cut. Without money, we couldn't have fought that, and we would have ended up not being able to support our families. Can you imagine what an $8-an-hour pay cut would do to you just so a company could show a higher profit?"
"Companies who want to locate in Indiana respect the rights of workers," Ellspermann replied. "But they want flexibility. We don't have a say in what states they look at. There have already been missed opportunities when companies bypassed Indiana because we are not a Right to Work state. So, we have to put our best foot forward. I gather all the information I can find and, at the end of the day, I have to make a decision. I won't make 100 percent of the people happy, but polling in my district shows most people are favorable on Right to Work. And if it becomes law, I have a hunch it will all be fine."
"You mean you're passing this law on a hunch?" one of the stewards asked.
But Ellspermann didn't respond.
When asked for a list of names of companies that refused to locate in Indiana, Ellspermann declined, saying that those companies wanted to remain anonymous.
"Why do they want to remain anonymous?" someone asked.
"Because they don't want to be bothered by people like these," she responded, pointing to the union stewards.
Upstairs, the building was bustling with protesters. Aaron Vaughan, a union carpenter and his wife, Shawna, came down from northern Indiana to take part in the protests.
"We really need to stop this thing," he said. "All this will do is hurt the middle class. We've worked hard for years and years to get where we are, and the Republicans clearly show that they have no problem ripping it all away from us. I've talked to workers up home who actually believe Right to Work will somehow benefit them in the long run. They actually believe that this is about bringing in jobs. But anyone who doesn't watch Fox News can tell you that this is about breaking unions and taking away our voices. If companies want to pay wages that the people can't live on, let them go to the states that are already Right to Work and lower their wages some more. Why do the Republicans want to ruin Indiana, too? It's hard to swallow, but I voted Republican last time. But had I known this, I certainly wouldn't have."
On the fourth floor, Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, met with some of his constituents. Young, whose office window included an anti-Right to Work sign, agreed with Vaughan.
"About 40 percent of union workers voted for Republicans in the last election," he said, "and look where it got them. People don't realize how the wealthy manipulates the Republican party. They protect and increase that wealth at the expense of others. The whole Right to Work thing has nothing to do with bringing in jobs. But the Republicans can't come right out and say that they want to abolish unions.
"And this talk of jobs is just political cover for what they want to accomplish. In a market where there is a surplus of labor, they can take advantage of workers and make billions of dollars. And they don't have a problem doing that. But many workers invest their life in a company — 20 or 30 years. Companies have a moral obligation to treat those workers in a fair way. If you can't do that, maybe you shouldn't be in business. But many businesses believe that, 'If I can't have slave labor, I can't make enough profit.' "
On Monday, Democrats were still not cooperating with Republicans, but it was obvious that at some point, they would have to re-enter the fray, which would give the Republicans a quorum and an opportunity to push the legislation forward. However, a press release late Monday morning pointed out that Democrats were still demanding that Gov. Mitch Daniels and Speaker of the House Brian Bosma disclose the names of companies that have refused to locate in Indiana due to not being a Right to Work state, but, like Ellspermann, Daniels and House Republicans have refused to make that information available. The Republicans are also refusing to name the source of money used to run television ads in support of Right to Work.