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Super Bowl-Level Stakes for Indiana Labor in Battle Over Union Rights

Governor Mitch Daniels' attempt to pass a "right-to-work" law in Indiana extends the GOP's war on organized labor beyond the public sector and into the private.

 It's not just NFL playoff teams and their fans who are obsessing over the February 5 Super Bowl in Indianpolis—Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Republican majorities in the State Legislature are hoping to score a big victory against unions before then.

By the time that the nation's eyes are fixed on the annual football spectacle, Indiana Republicans aim to have passed the first "right-to-work" law in the Midwest and New England (other than Iowa). Such a "right-to-work" law—which outlaws "union shops," allowing nonunion workers to enjoy bargaining benefits without paying dues—would also extend the GOP's war on organized labor beyond the public sector—major battles have been (in)famously waged in Wisconsin and Ohio since the 2010 midterm elections created GOP majorities in those states—to the private sector.

The "right to work" strategy first adopted by corporate, political and civic elites in the old Confederacy has pulled down national standards for both pay and the exercise of union rights. Right-to-work laws have consolidated the low wages imposed by the Southern ruling class, and effectively established a major downward pressure on wages across the entire nation. 

The low level of unionization typical in low-wage Southern right-to-work states in 1980--generally, 7% or less compared with roughly 40% in states like New York, West Virginia and Hawaii—has also come to set the national norm, with just 6.9% of private sector workers in the United States now in unions.

But most of the public currently has little clue about the implications of right-to-work laws, both for pay and workers' rights. The term of art "Right to work" is a brilliant piece of corporate marketing, as such laws provide absolutely no rights to workers and have nothing to do with guaranteeing full employment.

Instead, "right to work" laws take away workers' right to have a union shop, thereby permitting management to play nonmembers off against union members, undermining the intent of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to establish a strong, unified voice for workers without company interference.

Further, the "right-to- work" law gives management a powerful incentive to screen out union sympathizers and hire anti-union workers, with the eventual goal of wearing down and eliminating the union.

The right-to-work law not only encourages management manipulation of organizations supposed to represent workers' distinct interests, but also establishes unique burdens on unions, which are required to devote extensive resources to protect nonmembers who contribute no dues.

As Marftin Wolfson  points out,

“Right -to-work” legislation creates a situation analogous to citizens driving on public roads or calling the public fire department to save burning houses, yet refusing to pay the taxes necessary for these public services. It reduces financial resources for unions and the ability of unions to effectively represent workers and bargain for higher wages and benefits.

The Hoosier Republicans were frustrated on the right-to-work issue last year when Democrats left the state to deny the the quorum neeeded for a vote, and Gov. Daniels gave higher priority to other pro-corporate measures.

But this time around, the Republicans are geared up for ramming through the right-to-work measure as rapidly as possible. The fast-tracking of "right to work" is aimed both at catching labor and Democrats unprepared and at heading off mass protests around the Super Bowl, by which time the Republicans plan to have fully enacted the law and thus rendered labor outrage belated and pointless, according to Peter Seybold, sociology professor and former director of Labor Studies at the University of Indiana at Indianpolis.

However, if labor and its Democratic allies can drag out the battle, the potential clearly exists for a massive response from labor and its allies, with the Super Bowl offering a worldwide audience. Indiana unionists can draw encouragement from nearby states like Wisconsin—where anti-union Governor Scott Walker faces a near-certain recall election—and Ohio, where residents voted by 61% to repeal Gov. John Kasich's law banning public sector unionism. Last year, Indiana unionists themselves staged massive rallies against the right-to-work proposal and succeed  in blocking it, at least until now.

The most relevant model for defeating a right-to-work law is surely the late 1970s campaign waged by Missouri labor. The effort was a classic model of social-movement unionism, where labor reached out to every possible ally, from community groups, to faith organizations of all religions, to peace and environmental groups, women, civil rights, and senior citizens. Labor showed a a remarkable degree of  sophistication in its outreach, according to what the late democratic socialist leader Michael Harrington told me back in 1980.