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Is Right to Work right for Hoosiers?


December 21, 2011
Indiana Republican lawmakers are planning another effort to pass the controversial Right to Work legislation in the next legislative session beginning in early January.

The bill, which most Democrats claim is a disguised effort to break unions in the state, will affect a unions' ability to collect dues through payroll deductions of employees who work for union-represented companies. The Republicans claim the legislation will enable the state to attract new businesses.

"Right to Work provides a better business climate," said Republican Sue Ellspermann, state representative for District 74, which includes Crawford County. "I'm part of the study committee on employment, and we've heard over 20 hours of testimony from economic development officials and business leaders. Many companies will not consider locating in a non-Right to Work state, so we have to create an environment that will get companies interested in being here. That will make it better for all Hoosier workers."

But Democrats aren't buying it. Right to Work was the issue that sent many Democratic lawmakers out of the state in protest last winter, and their feelings about the proposed legislation haven't changed.

"Just a couple of days ago, polls dealing with Right to Work found that support for it is weak," Sen. Richard D. Young, D-Milltown, said. "Only 38 percent favored the idea, and 47 percent opposed it. And 67 percent of those polled stated that we should not make Right to Work a priority, but should move on to other issues. Hoosiers' patience has run out. We need to be addressing more important issues like the economy.

"Right to Work is nothing more than a way to keep unions from being formed, to make it more difficult for workers to organize, to have a voice. Good, reputable companies, those who treat their employees fairly, will locate in a non-Right to Work state. They always have," he said. "Look at Toyota down in Princeton. They pay good wages and have good benefits for their employees, in order to keep the unions out. So, the unions have a purpose and fill a need, to set a certain standard of living for workers all over. They set a level that all businesses should abide by. Toyota didn't want the UAW there, so they treat their employees well enough that they won't want to organize. Every company that doesn't want a union should do the same thing, not do their best to break the union itself so they can get away with paying low wages and few benefits."

Ellspermann disagrees, saying that incomes actually grew faster in recent years in Right to Work states.

"Those states show lower unemployment rates," she added. "And there's no evidence that Right to Work leads to lower wages."

Robert Norrington, a union member from Harrison County, disagrees.

"A Right to Work law is redundant, lowers wages and benefits for all workers and destroys the tax base for local communities," he said. "It is not economic development strategy driving this issue. Rather, it is a simple partisan, outdated, anti-union agenda. The real problem with a Right to Work law and its special-interest supporters is that in their zest and zeal to hurt unions, they hurt non-union Hoosier workers as well.

"There are two Supreme Court cases that Right to Work supporters tend to overlook. In the 1963 NLRB v. General Motors Corp. case, the court ruled that employees could not be forced to join a union under any circumstances. In the 1988 Communications Workers v. Beck case, the court ruled that workers could not be forced to pay the portion of their union dues that went for political purposes with which they did not agree. This makes Right to Work redundant and unnecessary."

Norrington said that in Oklahoma, the most recent state to pass a Right to Work law (2001), the following two years saw a 6.4-percent loss in manufacturing jobs and a 10.6-percent loss in information-field related jobs.

"When the 22 current Right to Work states were examined, wages dropped significantly for workers in all demographic categories," he added. "An estimate based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau data showed that, if Indiana were to adopt a Right to Work law, weekly wages for all workers may drop by as much as 16.3 percent and annual wages for all workers may drop as much as 17.3 percent. Most independent reports conclude that a Right to Work law would be a fundamental step backwards for Indiana and would be a race to the bottom in terms of wages, benefits and working conditions for Hoosier families."

But even if, as Young suggested, the support for Right to Work is weak in Indiana, Republican lawmakers are about to plow ahead with the legislation anyway. Ellspermann said the bill will be one of the first to be considered when the short session begins in January.

"We think this is a good thing for the state," she said. "It will make it better for all Hoosier workers. The leadership is going to make it a No. 1 priority. I expect to see it come before the employment committee in early January and then go to the floor for consideration soon after that. We are in a short session, so we'll have to get everything completed by February. We hope to get at least some Democratic support for the bill."

But Democrat support may be in short supply.

"Good wages and benefits ripple an entire geographic area," Young said. "If wages are higher in Jasper, Loogootee will also experience higher wages. Anyone qualified to do a job will want comparable wages. What's wrong with that? This has always been an issue. Business hasn't changed much since the 1800s. They do what they can get away with, always have. And there's a lot of greed in the world. Longer hours and less pay lowers the cost of producing their products. And what they do affects other companies; it reduces the standard.

"And look at the Walmart deal. They have lower wages and little, if any, health care benefits. If their people get hurt or sick, they go to the emergency rooms for care and we all pay for it. They get help from the WIC program and other federal programs, and so we are subsidizing Walmart employees," he said. "If they paid higher wages, their people wouldn't qualify for state and federal benefits. And they could put the cost of subsidizing their own employees into the products they sell. The wealth of the Walton family is almost obscene. They have more than the entire budgets of some countries, and we're subsidizing their employees."

Young said there may be a handful of Republicans who will vote with Democrats on the Right to Work issue, and that is the only way they will be able to stop it.

"That's our best hope, to find enough members to vote no," he added. "I don't believe that the government should do everything, but we have a responsibility to our people. We have to have regulations, and we need to protect and make sure the playing field is equal for workers. We don't need goals to make a gazillion dollars. We need to be sure Hoosier jobs can provide decent housing, education and health care for our children and families, not use Right to Work to lower everyone down to a level that we can compete with Bangladesh wages. We're our brother's keepers. We need to be concerned."

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Schuler Bauer
Barbara Shaw
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