Statehouse stalls as Dems stage walkout 

  • Protesters face State Police outside Indiana House chambers.(Austin Considine)

UPDATE, 3/2/11: NUVO was unable to be in the statehouse today, but a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus confirmed that Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) came back from Illinois today to meet with House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) in a meeting open to the press.

Bosma and Bauer agreed the meeting was a positive step, the spokesman said. Little movement was made toward specific concessions on either side.

The two men discussed three bills in particular: HB 1216, a bill that makes it illegal for the governments to require bidders on public work projects to hire union workers, or discriminate against bidders who refuse to work with unions; HB 1538, a prevailing wage measure; and HB 1003, a school vouchers bill (for details on the latter two, see below).

Party leaders have also asked Reps. Bill Crawford (D-Indianapolis), ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee and Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale) the committee's chair, to discuss the budget together.

Bauer is said to be heading back to Illinois after his statehouse visit.

As House Democrats enter their second week of absence in an attempt to block a package of aggressive Republican labor and education reforms, Indiana has been thrust to the forefront of a national debate over the fate of the American labor movement, with no resolution in sight.

Unlike the Wisconsin bill that has drawn massive protests and deals only with public employee unions, Indiana's so-called "Right -to-Work" bill (RTW), would effectively strip all private sector unions of their collective bargaining power. Contracts or agreements preventing employers from hiring non-union workers would be rendered illegal; requiring union membership as a condition of employment would become a Class A misdemeanor.

[For a NUVO's cover story about Right-to-Work, click here.]

Democrats had already indicated they were willing to disrupt the process over RTW on the first day of session in early January. But the decisive moment came when Republicans unexpectedly called a House committee hearing on the controversial bill for Monday, Feb. 22, despite the prognostications of statehouse insiders and public statements by Governor Mitch Daniels that the bill was too divisive.

It was little surprise, then, when 37 House Democrats walked out after Republican committee members approved the bill, amid throngs of protestors who packed the statehouse. House rules say a bill must be introduced to the full House within 24 hours of passing committee to receive a vote; the Democratic walkout prevents the two-thirds House attendance needed for a quorum to accept new legislation, effectively killing the bill for now, along with several others.

Since then, House leaders have found themselves at an impasse, as Democrats remain out of state, and Republicans continue to dig in.

'List of concerns'

Last Tuesday, around the time most House Democrats were leaving the state to hunker down in a roadside hotel in Urbana, Ill., Democrats issued a series of what seemed, at the time, like a list of demands.

"We will remain here until we get assurances from the governor and House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) that these bills will not be called down in the House at any time this session," the statement read.

The statement listed 11 specific problem bills, including the state budget and RTW – all of them pertaining to labor or education. They included:

HB 1002: Provides for charter school expansion.

HB 1003: Allows a family of four making up to about $81,500 a year to receive tax dollars, or vouchers, for private school tuition.

HB 1479: Allows the state to take over poorly performing schools and turn them over to for-profit "special management teams" for rehabilitation, including at parents' request.

HB 1203: Precludes unions' right to organize by way of a majority sign-up — or, a "card-check."

HB 1585: Enshrines in state law a ban on collective bargaining among public employees.

HB 1538: Prevents communities from deciding what wages are appropriate for their area — also known as the "prevailing wage."

As of Monday afternoon, Bauer said in a conference call from Urbana that Democrats had no plans to return under current conditions. But his tone had softened since the initial walkout.

Bauer insisted, as he had for several days, that the list was not a set of demands but "a list of concerns." He would not offer any concrete terms for a Democratic return, nor commitments on how long they were willing to hold out.

But, he clarified, there were at least five or so bills Democrats strongly felt needed "adjustment," in any negotiations.

"I wouldn't weaken (those changes) to the point that it doesn't matter what the adjustments are," he said. "They would have to take away some of the pain, some of the great loss that they cause."

Democrats were willing to discuss all these points with Republicans if Republicans agreed to negotiate, Bauer said. "I'm willing to negotiate anytime, anywhere."

In a press conference later that day, it was clear that Leader Bosma wasn't buying it: "If (Bauer) says 'anytime, anywhere," he can be here tomorrow at 10:30 in my office. That'd be fine. I'd love to have a conversation with him."

Bosma said Bauer had never indicated to him in phone conversations that the original demands had softened, as Bauer has emphasized to the press.

It was obvious the party leaders had made little headway.

"If somebody has a great idea about changing a bill... we will continue to listen," he said. "But to toss a list in and say 'we're not going to deal with these 11 issues'... it's just not happening."

Dollars and shoe leather

Democrats and union leaders have portrayed the standoff as an existential struggle for organized labor in America — a battle between the corporate ownership class and a dwindling blue-collar class, formerly known as the middle class.

"What we're looking at are efforts to weaken opportunities for voice among low- and middle-income employees, and strengthening opportunities for voice among corporate America," said Lisa Blomgren Bingham, professor of public service at Indiana University-Bloomington's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, referring to legislation like RTW.

Prevailing wisdom, at large and among Democrats inside the statehouse, says that what's going on in Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio is more about politics than trimming budgets — a fight for dollars and shoe leather that could upset the balance of the two-party political system. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which granted corporations the rights of citizens to make campaign donations, they say union-busting legislation could be another nail in the coffin of the Democratic machine.

As for the unions themselves, recent Indiana history demonstrates the kind of dramatic effect RTW-style bills can have.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Daniels claimed that membership in public employee unions had dropped 90 percent since he effectively stripped them of their collective bargaining by executive order in 2005.

But where Daniels touted the shift as a victory — "It was absolutely central to our turnaround here," he said — critics in The Times article pointed to a host of hardships created for state employees, including "no raises for state employees in some years, a weakening of seniority preferences and a far greater freedom to consolidate state operations or outsource them to private companies."

High noon

After the walkout, Republicans were quick to say they would drop RTW this session — pushing, instead, for a summer study committee.

Regardless, some accuse Democrats of overreaching by remaining out of state.

"If (Democrats) are holding the process hostage, I'm not responding in a positive way," Bosma said. "I'm just not going to reward the behavior."

Republicans were nearly as quick to create a deadline extension that will go into effect as soon as there are enough Democrats to form a quorum, thus extending the life of dozens of bills temporarily killed by Democrats.

Along with RTW, an additional 22 other bills were also killed by the end of the day last Tuesday because of the walkout.

By week's end – the official deadline for the full House to vote on any bill – dozens more active bills were indefinitely tabled, including the entire state budget. In content, they ranged from contentious bills that would restrict abortion rights and take away funding from Planned Parenthood, to less divisive bills concerning storm water management.

As such, Democrats have been criticized for subverting the democratic process. But Bauer has pointed to a brief walkout by minority Republicans in 2001, and emphasized that RTW was never the only issue at stake. It was simply the last straw.

"(Right-to-Work) didn't start all this," he said. "This has been building from other radical changes, other attacks on workers."


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