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As Statehouse Row Erupts over GOP Bill, Indiana Reps Debate Curbs on Right to Organize Unions

StoryJanuary 05, 2012
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Kreg Battles

Indiana Democratic state representative (District 64).

Bill Friend

Indiana Republican state representative (District 23).

A fight over workers’ right to unionize erupted in Indiana on Wednesday as Democratic state representatives stayed away from the House floor, depriving the Republican majority of a quorum needed to push through a measure that would prohibit union contracts at private sector workplaces from requiring workers to pay dues or other fees to a union. If enacted, it could give new momentum to legislators who have previously pushed such measures in Maine, Michigan, Missouri and other states. Democrats say the legislation is an attack on organized labor that will result in lower wages and diminished collective bargaining rights. Meanwhile, Republicans claim the bill will help Indiana attract new and needed businesses and jobs. We host a debate between two Indiana state representatives, Republican Bill Friend and Democrat Kreg Battles. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We go now to Indiana, where a fight over workers’ right to unionize erupted on the first day of the state’s new lawmaking session. Most Democratic state representatives stayed away from the House floor on Wednesday, depriving the Republican majority of a quorum needed to push through a business-friendly piece of legislation known as a right-to-work law. The law would prohibit union contracts at private sector workplaces from requiring workers to pay dues or other fees to a union. In states without the laws, employees at unionized workplaces generally have to pay such fees. If Indiana enacts such a law, it may give new momentum to legislators who have previously pushed such measures in Maine, Michigan, Missouri and other states.

Democrats say the legislation is an organized attack against labor that will result in lower wages and diminished collective bargaining rights. Meanwhile, Republicans claim the bill will help Indiana attract new, needed businesses and jobs. Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, is a strong supporter of the right-to-work bill.

GOV. MITCH DANIELS: Right-to-work just says no worker can be forced to pay union dues against his will, but this simple protection really matters. The 22 states that have it are adding jobs and income a lot faster than those that don’t. No wonder Hoosiers support the right-to-work proposal by more than two to one. I’ve looked into the arguments against the idea, and they just don’t hold up. Right-to-work has no effect on safety or the workers’ right to organize. Several right-to-work states are more unionized than Indiana. We can’t afford to keep missing out on good jobs just for lack of this simple freedom. In this lousy national economy, a state needs every edge it can get. Join the huge majority of Hoosiers who support right-to-work reform and the new jobs it can bring to our state.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels. Right-to-work laws exist in 22 states, almost all in the South and West, with Oklahoma the most recent to pass one in 2001.

For more on the statehouse rule, the recent protests and the right-to-work law in Indiana, we’re joined for a debate today by two Indiana state representatives. Republican Bill Friend and Democrat Kreg Battles join us from Indianapolis.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Why don’t we begin with Kreg Battles, Indiana Democratic state representative? Can you tell us what your battle is in Indianapolis today?

REP. KREG BATTLES: Well, it’s actually twofold. The first part is the speed at which this legislation is moving through. We could see what is probably at least the most controversial issue that we’re going to deal with in this session that could easily be passed in less than a week. A week is not the proper amount of time for adequate vetting. It doesn’t give proper time for input. And something of this magnitude, of this size and of this controversy, it certainly deserves a whole lot more attention than fast-tracking. I know, in my own personal life, that any time I’ve done things in haste, I’ve probably had things that I regretted and wished I had done different. With something of this magnitude, and again, of this controversy, we can’t afford to make mistakes. We have to make sure that it’s done correctly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, Republican State Representative Bill Friend, why do you feel it’s so important at this stage to pass this legislation?

REP. BILL FRIEND: I come from an area of the state where the unemployment rate is between 11 and 12 percent. Despite all of the actions that we’ve taken in state government over the last few years to provide tax incentives, financing incentives, tax abatements, things of that nature, we’ve just not been able to make the unemployment rate move down. Eleven to 12 percent is unacceptable, and I’m willing to consider almost any proposal that will help to bring jobs and put people back to work. I think it’s vitally important that we give this consideration.

Through the last few months, the summer study committee in Indiana studied both sides of this right-to-work legislation, and we’ve had plenty of presentations, lots of time to think about it. So, I truly respect Representative Battles and his opinion, but I do think this has—this issue has been vetted for some time now.

AMY GOODMAN: Kreg Battles, your response?

REP. KREG BATTLES: Again, I think we share equal admiration for one another, so this is certainly not personal between the two of us. But I would say, one, there have been two studies done in Indiana: one is through Notre Dame University; the other is Indiana University. Both of those studies were not paid for by any outside affiliate, and both came to the same result. And that result was: it does not create jobs. But the result was that what it did, that it did lower the average per capita salary of workers in right-to-work states, it lowered their benefits, and thirdly, it increased the fatality rate and injury rate in plants that work. To me, it’s just not a great bargain for the state if both of those independent studies reaches the conclusion it doesn’t create jobs, but what it does do is it reduces salaries, benefits, and makes safety hazards.

I will say also that I was a member of the summer study committee. I can’t criticize that. That was a step in the right direction. But you have to remember, the study—summer study committee was held in Indianapolis. It was held in the middle of a workday. There are an awful lot of Hoosiers can’t afford to take off work and ride into Indianapolis in the middle of a workweek, in the middle of a workday. I personally think that we probably need to go out, maybe have some sessions, have some roundtables around the state. It couldn’t add more than a week to this passing, but I think in doing so, you have more public input, you have more oversight. Again, something of this magnitude deserves more than something that we fast-track through to get it done quickly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Representative Friend, what about this issue that in states that have adopted similar right-to-work laws, wages have gone down? But I’d also like to ask you about this issue of the law requiring not even fees to be paid. It’s one thing to be required to be a union member, but if you’re not a union member, if you choose not to be a union member, but the union negotiates better benefits and wages for you, shouldn’t you have to pay, in essence, a fee for that representation to the union?

REP. BILL FRIEND: I think that’s very much a discussable issue. It’s one that’s a point that you raise that some would say makes a great deal of sense. I think that it also—what we’re looking for here is employee freedom, worker freedom, worker choice, whether they choose to join the union or not. And the whole issue of payment of fees or representation fees, whatever you want to call them, I think that, you know, that’s a point that’s worth discussing. I don’t object to that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Kreg Battles, what will happen now? Are we seeing a reprise of Wisconsin? The Democratic legislators stayed out yesterday so that the Republicans couldn’t get a quorum to pass the legislation. What’s your plan today?

REP. KREG BATTLES: I think we’re going to—the Leader and the Speaker are meeting. To my knowledge, they talked yesterday. They’re meeting face-to-face again this morning. I think that we’re looking for common ground. I think that Representative Friend—again, a friend of mine—points out the need that we don’t have a right to work. Quite honestly, union members do not have to join a union. Right now what they do is they do pay a fair-share fee. That is what right-to-work does. Right-to-work removes that fair share fee for that representation. So, if that’s on the table and discussable, quite honestly, that’s the whole purpose. That’s the whole point of right-to-work, is getting rid of that fair-share fee if they choose not to join. At this point, if that’s on the table for discussion, then we don’t need this bill at all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Representative Friend, what will happen if the Democrats continue to stay away and if you cannot reach an agreement?

REP. BILL FRIEND: Well, in the last session of the General Assembly, there was an anti-bolting provision that was inserted into the budget, which, after three days of denying a quorum, the absent members can be subject to a thousand-dollar fine. That, hopefully, will not come to pass. It is true that Speaker Bosma and Leader Bauer, I think, are scheduled to meet this morning and discuss what can be done and how can we make progress and how do we move forward. That’s—those are all very positive things, if we can just get the leaders communicating and open the lines, so that if there are issues, if there are problems, they can be communicated to one another, and then there can be some kind of a conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Kreg Battles, Wisconsin got a lot more attention, but you in Indiana, the Democratic state representatives, left the state, fled the state for five weeks last year, in the same way that Wisconsin Democrats did. Do you plan to do that again?

REP. KREG BATTLES: That’s not even being discussed. We were in the Statehouse all day. I arrived at the Statehouse at 7:00 in the morning and didn’t leave 'til 9:30 last night. I was back in the Statehouse again this morning at 7:00 a.m. I will leave there late again. There's no plans on leaving the Statehouse, let alone leaving the state of Indiana or Indianapolis.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thank you both for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow what happens in Indiana. Kreg Battles, Indiana Democratic state representative, and Bill Friend, Indiana Republican state representative, thanks for joining us from Indianapolis.

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