INDIANAPOLIS — Lawmakers put Indiana on the verge of becoming the Rust Belt’s first right-to-work state, passing legislation Wednesday that prohibits labor contracts requiring workers to pay union representation fees.
Hundreds of union members gathered at the Statehouse chanted “Shame on you!” and “See you at the Super Bowl!” as the vote was announced. As the streets of Indianapolis bustled with Super Bowl festivities, protesters planned a downtown rally that they hoped would point a national spotlight on the state.
Indiana will be the first state in a decade to enact a right-to-work law prohibiting labor contracts that require workers to pay union representation fees. Indiana’s move is expected to embolden national right-to-work advocates, who have unsuccessfully pushed the measure in other states following a Republican sweep of statehouses in 2010. But few right-to-work states boast Indiana’s union clout, borne of a long manufacturing legacy.
The law’s passage would close one chapter in a contentious debate that sparked a five-week walkout by outnumbered House Democrats last year and saw them stage numerous boycotts this session, delaying action on other bills and threatening to spill over into the Feb. 5 Super Bowl.
The Republican-controlled Senate approved the bill in a 28-22 vote Wednesday morning. The bill now heads for the desk of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has said he will sign it upon arrival.
Union protesters said they were not ready to be silenced.
Chuck Wheeldon of Lafayette, wearing a Super Bowl 2012 baseball cap, said he was glad Indianapolis was hosting the game in a stadium that many of his fellow carpenters union members helped build.
“I don’t want to ruin it for anybody, but I definitely want everybody around the rest of the country to know what the heck is going on,” Wheeldon said. “If we cause a little ruckus, so be it.”
Daniels said this week that it would be a “colossal mistake” for union protesters to disrupt Super Bowl festivities and that any such move could backfire on them.
Indiana AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Harris said protesters planned to hand out leaflets before Sunday’s game.
Supporters say right to work helps create a pro-business climate that attracts employers and increases jobs. Opponents say it leads to lower wages and poorer quality jobs, and they accused Republicans of rushing the bill through to avoid disrupting the Super Bowl.
But with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in the House and Senate, and House Democrats facing stiff fines if they walked out for a lengthy period as they did last year, opponents had few opportunities to stop the bill.
Testifying against the bill Wednesday, Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, said there was no evidence that right to work created jobs and likened the bill’s fate to the Super Bowl, but with one team playing at a huge disadvantage.
“Our side has fewer men on the field, and our team doesn’t have pads or helmets,” Simpson said. “We already know what the final score is going to be.”
Experts say many factors influence states’ economies and that it’s nearly impossible to isolate the impact of right to work. For major industries, access to supplies, infrastructure, key markets and a skilled workforce are key factors, according to business recruitment specialists. For a state’s workers, the impact of right-to-work legislation is limited because only about 7 percent of private sector employees are unionized. Over the years, job growth has surged in states with, and without, right-to-work laws.
Oklahoma, with its rural-based economy that produces comparatively fewer union jobs than Indiana, was the last state to pass right-to-work legislation, in 2001.
Over the past year, Republicans have pushed for other anti-union laws in battleground Rust Belt states where many of the country’s manufacturing jobs reside, including Wisconsin and Ohio, but they also have faced backlash from Democrats and union supporters. Wisconsin last year stripped public sector unions of collective bargaining rights.
Despite massive protests outside the Capitol, Wisconsin’s GOP-dominated Assembly passed a law backed by Gov. Scott Walker in March that strips nearly all collective bargaining rights from organized labor. Walker is now preparing for a recall election after opponents turned in a million signatures aimed at forcing a vote and ousting him from office. In November, Ohio voters repealed a law limiting collective bargaining rights that was championed by Gov. John Kasich and fellow Republican lawmakers.