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Union fight extends to Indiana

Democratic lawmakers in that state have followed in the footsteps of their Wisconsin counterparts, fleeing the state until Republicans are willing to negotiate.

February 24, 2011|By Abby Sewell and Dan Hinkel
  • Becky Smith, left, protests with Allison Luthe outside the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.
Becky Smith, left, protests with Allison Luthe outside the Indiana Statehouse… (Matt Detrich / Indianapolis…)

Reporting from Indianapolis and Madison, Wis. — The battle against unions in the Midwest escalated Wednesday as a second state, Indiana, effectively found itself trapped in a legislative stalemate.

All but three of the 40 Democratic members of the Indiana House of Representatives have temporarily moved to Illinois to avoid voting on legislation they consider to be anti-union. Illinois is also where all 14 of the Democratic senators from Wisconsin sought sanctuary when they fled from Madison last week to block legislation that would have ended collective bargaining rights for public employee unions.

The Indiana Democrats presented Republicans with a list of 11 bills they wanted dropped. The most high-profile would make Indiana a "right to work" state, meaning that no workplace could require employees to join a union or pay union dues.

That measure appears to be at least temporarily off the table. Other bills on the Democrats' list included one that would end the secret ballot system used when workers vote to unionize; several labor- and education-related bills; and the state budget.

Speaking by phone from a "discount hotel" in Urbana, Ill., where the missing Democrats are staying on the state Democratic Party's dime, minority House Leader Pat Bauer said he wouldn't go back to Indiana until he got an indication that Republicans were willing to negotiate.

"I was just told about the entire list, 'Nuts,' and we have to get beyond that," he said. (Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, in a morning phone conversation between the two, had made reference to Gen. Anthony McAuliffe's famous use of that word in the face of a German demand for surrender at the Battle of the Bulge.)

Bosma, for his part, said he had no intention of negotiating with the missing Democrats.

"We will not concede to a list of demands from those who have vacated this state," he said in a brief morning session, drawing a standing ovation from Republicans and boos from watching activists.

The situation in Indiana is part of the growing anti-union campaign that has rocked Wisconsin, where demonstrations by public employees and their allies are in their second week.

Republican governors and legislatures are seeking to roll back union rights. In Wisconsin, public employee rights to collective bargaining would be ended, while in Indiana, pending legislation would allow private workers to leave their unions and not have to pay mandatory union dues.

Unions have flooded state capitals to oppose the legislation. On Wednesday, the Capitol in Indianapolis was swarming with protesters, who chanted, sang, ate pizza donated by well-wishers, and hoisted signs that proclaimed, "Stop corporate greed" and "End the war on the middle class."

During the morning House session, which was dismissed for lack of quorum, Bosma ordered spectators cleared from the gallery of the chamber after they started to sing, "We Shall Overcome."

Dressed in an Uncle Sam costume, Nick Young, 23, a third-generation steel worker from Knox, Ind., said he had been protesting since Sunday against legislation that would hinder the right to organize and collective bargaining.

"It's just something I want to hold on to, and I'm going to fight like hell to keep it," he said.

Bosma called the right-to-work bill dead because the Democrats' absence Tuesday meant the Legislature missed a procedural deadline. But Democrats and union activists were seeking assurances that it would not be resurrected later.

Friday is the deadline for bills to move from the state House to the Senate. But House Republicans said Wednesday evening they might introduce rules changes that would extend the deadline, so Democrats would return to the same slate of bills they had hoped to kill.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, a potential presidential aspirant, had initially distanced himself from the anti-union battle. But Wednesday he blasted Democrats for showing "complete contempt for the democratic process."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also a Republican, said again that he would stand firm to eliminate collective bargaining rights for his state's public employees.

Walker suffered public embarrassment when he took a phone call from a man he thought was billionaire conservative businessman David Koch. In reality it was a prank caller, who kept Walker on the phone talking about his strategy for dealing with the missing Democrats.

In Ohio, state Senate Republicans were considering changing controversial legislation to preserve state workers' collective bargaining rights for wages, while prohibiting public employees from striking.

The changes were being considered a day after more than 5,000 union workers descended on the statehouse in Columbus in opposition to the earlier proposal to eliminate collective bargaining altogether for state workers.

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.

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