Indiana Bucks Rust Belt, Enacts Right-to-Work Law

Published February 12, 2012

A battle in Indiana that lasted more than a year and two legislative sessions ended Feb. 1 when Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) signed a right-to-work bill into law, making Indiana the 23rd right-work state—and the first in the Rust Belt. The bill had passed the State Senate 28-22 and the House 55-44.

Supporters hailed it as a major victory that will retain employers and attract new ones. Right-to-work states do not allow people to be forced to join labor unions or pay union dues as a condition of employment.

“This law won’t be a magic answer, but we’ll be far better off with it,” Daniels said in a statement. “I respect those who have objected, but they have alarmed themselves unnecessarily: No one’s wages will go down, no one’s benefits will be reduced, and the right to organize and bargain is untouched and intact.”

Experience Changed Stance

Although while first running for governor in 2004 Daniels said he would not push right-to-work, he said seven years as the state’s chief executive have demonstrated to him such a law is necessary to attract jobs. He noted one reason Volkswagen opened a new auto manufacturing plant in Tennessee last year was because Tennessee is a right-to-work state and Indiana was not.

State Senate President Pro Tempore David Long (R-Ft. Wayne) said he received word from officials at one Indiana company that they will remain in the state rather than relocate to Alabama, another right-to-work state. He also said a company from Michigan is considering moving to Indiana.

“When they saw what was happening here, [they] invited the state to bid. We are now in consideration for those jobs,” he said.

Labor Union Backlash

During this year’s legislative session, busloads of union members descended on the statehouse in Indianapolis and heckled lawmakers from the galleries in an attempt to disrupt proceedings. On several occasions in January, Democrat House members walked out, preventing a quorum and bringing all legislative business to a standstill.

However, unlike last year’s drama that saw the Democrats flee for several weeks to an Illinois hotel, House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) ordered his caucus to return to the statehouse after an amendment was defeated that would have put right-to-work on the ballot this year.

After the bill’s signing, Indiana AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott shouted to union members from the statehouse steps, “We’ll take our state back, one citizen at a time! You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

Falling Union Membership

With union membership declining, however, it remains to be seen whether unions can mount a campaign to defeat Hoosier lawmakers who supported the bill. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership stood at just over 10 percent in Indiana in 2010, down from 15 percent in 2000. Nationally, only 6.9 percent of the private-sector workforce is in unions.

This isn’t Indiana’s first experience with right-to-work. It was adopted in 1957 but was repealed in 1965 after union members managed to elect a Democrat governor and legislature the year before.

‘Marketplace Sets Wages’

John Sampson, president of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, an economic development group, said he viewed passage of the bill as historic.

“I think this sends a clear message to the country that Indiana is going to lead in preparing a place for us to grow our economy and make a place for workers to be successful in the future,” Sampson said. As for claims the bill would drive down wages and benefits, Sampson said, “the marketplace sets wages, not unions.”

Nick Baker ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.