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Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- The fight is on in Indiana over another Republican attempt to weaken unions amid signs that the party’s appetite for war with organized labor isn’t matched in other states.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker faces an ouster campaign after pushing restrictions last year on government workers’ collective bargaining. Ohio voters repudiated Governor John Kasich’s similar curbs on labor in November.
So as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Republican lawmakers try to prohibit mandatory union dues in private workplaces, others keep their distance in an election year.
“I don’t think it’s an appropriate subject for us to be dealing with today,” Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder said in a Dec. 12 interview on Detroit radio station WJR.
Snyder, who said in 2010 that he would sign so-called right-to-work legislation, now calls such efforts “divisive.”
The battle in Indiana this week resembles last year’s fractious session. House of Representatives Democrats, who oppose the right-to-work bill, spent the session’s first two days in caucus, effectively preventing the chamber from conducting business. Last year, they fled the state to block labor-law changes.
“Right to work will only enforce Indiana’s negative image as a mean-spirited, backward state,” Morton Marcus, an economist and former director of the Indiana Business Research Center, testified today before a committee considering the bill.
Keith Busse, former chief executive officer of Steel Dynamics Inc., a producer in Fort Wayne, told the committee that right-to-work “would be a jobs boon.”
With Indianapolis hosting the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, the NFL Players Association issued a news release that called the bill “a political ploy designed to destroy basic workers’ rights.”
Union membership in the U.S. has been declining for decades. In 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of unionized workers was 11.9 percent. That’s down from 20.1 percent in 1983. In Indiana, 10.9 percent of workers are organized, according to the agency.
Walker’s move last year restricting collective-bargaining rights for most public-employee unions triggered weeks of protests in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, and led to recalls of two Republican state senators. Union members are helping the drive that has collected more than a half-million signatures seeking the governor’s ouster.
Walker, who was in Washington yesterday speaking to the American Enterprise Institute and raising money to oppose the recall campaign, said he miscalculated how successful unions would be in framing the debate.
“Labor unions can unite and be very effective when they see their fundamental interests threatened,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. “And there’s a real risk of provoking them in an election year because of their capacity to mobilize voters.”
Issues that anger voters may raise turnout and influence other statewide races, Green said. That is especially important in Midwest battleground states that have decided presidential elections, he said.
In Ohio, a ballot-proposal effort has begun to make it a right-to-work state.
“It’s a heavy lift right now,” said Chris Littleton, a member of the committee called Ohioans for Workplace Freedom that is organizing the drive. “For some it is a political hot button and a no-no.”
Ohio is important for Democratic President Barack Obama, who won it in 2008. Republicans are concentrating on defeating Obama and Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown in November and a right-to-work fight might be a costly distraction, Green said. Kasich’s approval rating dropped to 36 percent after the union fight, according to an October poll by Quinnipiac University of Hamden, Connecticut.
In Michigan, considered the birthplace of U.S. organized labor, Republican state Representative Mike Shirkey said he is confident the House will pass a right-to-work bill over Snyder’s objections.
“I talked with the governor,” Shirkey said in a telephone interview. “He says there’s a time and a place for everything. Well, this is the time and this is the place.”
“Sometimes it’s necessary to do things recognizing there will be unintended consequences that may be uncomfortable,” Shirkey said.
Indiana Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he would ignore any pressure to back off from national party leaders eager to recapture the state that Obama won four years ago.
“We’re not worried about the next election,” Bosma said in a telephone interview. “We’re worried about jobs here.”
Although 22 states have enacted the ban, none have in the industrial Midwest, according to the National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation Inc., based in Springfield, Virginia.
Oklahoma was the last state to enact a right-to-work law, in 2001. Democrats say the measures lower paychecks for working families.
The average worker in a right-to-work state is paid $30,167 a year, or about $5,333 less than workers in states that don’t have the rule, according to U.S. Labor Department data.
The measure in Indiana, which already prohibits collective bargaining by state workers, extends the attacks on public- employee unions last year to private business.
In Wisconsin, public and private sector unions worked together last year in the face of a common threat, said Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“All of this blew up,” Franklin said in an interview. “Wisconsin and Ohio demonstrate that you’re opening the door to a costly and prolonged political battle. You may win in the end, you may lose in the end, but it will surely be costly to both sides.”
--With assistance from Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee, Florida, William Selway in Washington and Samm Quinn in Indianapolis. Editors: Stephen Merelman, Mark Schoifet
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