Right-to-work law returns to Indiana, as does union effort to repeal it

Stateline Midwest ~ February 2012

For Indiana residents old enough to remember their state’s politics of the mid-20th century, the legislative battle in recent years over a so-called “right-to-work” law (dubbed “right to work for less” by opponents) is nothing new.

The year 2012, in fact, may remind them of 1957.

In both years, amid protests by labor groups and strong opposition by the minority party, the legislature passed a bill banning union security agreements that require individuals to become a member of a labor organization and to pay dues to it.

HB 1001, the right-to-work bill signed into law in February, makes such agreements a Class A misdemeanor.

The question now in Indiana is whether there will be another 1965, the year the first right-to-work legislation was repealed after Republicans lost control of state government and Democrats swept into power.

“The next election is going to be fascinating,” says Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University. “Unionized workers are worked up. They are going to organize and be very motivated, and I don’t think the other side is particularly worked up.

“But Indiana has changed a lot as a state. There has been a nibbling away of the strength of unions. As manufacturing jobs have gone away, so has the ability of unions to influence what happens in the state Capitol.”

Indiana is the first Great Lakes state — a region with a traditionally strong manufacturing and union base — to adopt a right-to-work law.

In Michigan, another Great Lakes state where Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, SB 116 and SB 120 would allow local governments to establish “right-to-work” zones. A separate measure would institute a statewide ban on union-security agreements.

Early this year, though, Gov. Rick Snyder told The Detroit News that he does not want to see right-to-work legislation “on my desk,” and he cited as one reason why the tumult last year in Ohio and Wisconsin over measures restricting the collective bargaining powers of public sector labor unions.

Dau-Schmidt says Indiana’s actions are in many ways a continuation of what occurred in those two other Midwestern states in 2011: In all three instances, the end result has been a weakening of union power.

Proponents of HB 1001 say it will give every Indiana worker the freedom to choose whether or not to join and financially support a union. They also contend it will bring jobs to the state, citing economic growth in existing right-to-work states as evidence.

“This is another important tool we can use to attract jobs to our state,” Republican Sen. Carlin Yoder says.

Soon after the bill’s passage in the House, then-Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer released a statement saying Republicans had “thrown their support behind a proposal that has a long, documented history of not creating jobs, not improving the pay and benefits of workers, and not making the places where they work safe.”

Each side of the right-to-work debate in Indiana has cited studies regarding the law’s impact on wages and jobs. For researchers, though, finding definitive correlations is problematic, Dau-Schmidt says. (According to his analysis of the research, right-to-work laws have no impact on jobs but tend to lower wages.)

“It’s very hard to separate the effects of a single policy like this on either jobs or wages in a state,” he adds. “You have so many laws and other factors that can impact economic suitability. It’s just not obvious, believe me.”

It is clear, however, that the new state laws on unions will be a significant campaign issue.

 In Indiana, gubernatorial and legislative elections are being held this year. Republicans have long enjoyed a solid majority in the Indiana Senate, but partisan control of the House and governor’s office has fluctuated.

Whether the right-to-work law holds this time in Indiana will depend on whether its proponents can hold off upcoming election challenges.