No Place for Cowards in Right-to-Work Debate

November 14, 2011

For release Nov. 16 and thereafter (675 words)

The 2012 legislature will be fraught with risk for Democrats and Republicans alike.  At some point, lawmakers will have to vote on right-to-work legislation, and those votes will carry political consequences.

Those who support it will be targeted by the unions in ads, rallies and election propaganda. Those who oppose it will be blamed by the business sector for protecting organized labor at the expense of new job creation.

The Statehouse will be no place for cowards. That’s fine. We elect lawmakers to take stands on hard issues, not to cover their tails for the next election.

Last time the issue came up, the timid literally and figuratively ran for cover. Democrats fled Indiana and refused to return to work until Republicans made concessions. Republicans, wanting to push through some big education and budget items, tabled their right-to-work proposal.

Unlike last session, the debate will take no one by surprise. Of all the study committees appointed to look at issues between sessions, few were as visible as the Interim Study Committee on Employment chaired by Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville. The committee, voting 5-4 on partisan lines, urged the legislature to consider a right-to-work law prohibiting unions and employers from requiring employees to pay dues to keep their job.

“Becoming a right-to-work state would likely bring more jobs to Indiana by making the state even more attractive to relocating and expanding companies,” the committee report said.

It’s still unclear whether or how aggressively Gov. Mitch Daniels will push for the legislation, although Republican supporters hope to have a strategy in place by Organizational Day, Nov. 22.

Democrats on the committee issued a minority report questioning the validity of the majority’s conclusions. Their bottom line? “This policy cannot simultaneously lower costs for employers and protect wages and jobs for employees.”

If the issue were limited to Indiana, it might not create commotion.  But judging by media coverage of lesser collective-bargaining initiatives across the country, what happens here will make headlines. Last winter TV news featured almost daily reports on battles in Ohio and Wisconsin between Republican governors seeking to scale back public-employee union rights and organized labor. Notably, that had already happened here under Governor Daniels with less fanfare.

Possibly a harbinger of union resurgence, voters in Ohio last week repealed their law curbing some collective-bargaining rights after an expensive AFL-CIO-backed initiative. Organized labor spent $24 million to distribute 4.1 million worksite fliers, knocked on 1.1 million doors and sent out 825,000 pieces of mail.

Unions fear right-to-work because it translates into lower union membership and lower wages in the states that have it, mostly in the South and West. Supporters have on their side two recent studies linking right-to-work with higher job growth and more disposable income for workers.

Currently, 22 states guarantee workers the option of joining a union while in 28 states employees can be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Indiana enacted right-to-work in 1957 but repealed it nine years later.

Except for Oklahoma, which passed a right-to-work law in 2001, there’s been no shift in the number of pro-business versus pro-union states for decades. For one thing, politicians are reluctant to entertain the inevitable showdown with labor. Also, it’s not an issue that motivates ordinary folks, in part because the semantics are confusing. Right-to-work doesn’t mean right to hold a job, but a right not to join a union.

Writing in the winter 2010 issue of Cato Journal, economist Richard Vedder notes that the politics of the matter favor inaction.

“The anti-right-to-work lobby is stronger than the pro-right-to-work one, but politicians probably also suspect that public opinion is generally supportive of right-to-work laws. These factors are roughly offsetting, so the politically optimal thing to do is nothing: don’t rock the boat.”

With their economies sputtering and the manufacturing sector permanently diminished, at least a dozen states are looking at right-to-work this year. Indiana will be a high-profile battleground: We could be the first Rust Belt state to go on record against mandatory unionism.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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