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Mitch Daniels' State of the Union Response Shows GOP Priority: Beating Up on Workers

Daniels’ response was the first to be delivered from a building surrounded by dozens of police cars and chanting activists, protesting his latest anti-union move.

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If it passes, says Uniersity of Indiana law professor Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, “It will weaken unions, it will make it harder to organize people, unions will have less resources, and it will be another blow for the middle class.”  Why’s that?

Under federal labor law, unions – whether in the twenty-two “Right to Work” states or in the other twenty-eight – are required to proide equal representation to everyone covered by a labor contract, whether they pay dues or not.  And under Supreme Court case law, workers in all fifty states have the option not to pay for any union expenses – like organizing new members or engaging in politics - beyond the direct costs of negotiating a union contract and representing employees.  

In other words, under current law in Indiana and other non-RTW states, workers who are covered by a union contract can opt out of paying full union dues, but have to pay for the direct costs of negotiating that contract and defending workers’ rights under it.  If Indiana becomes a “Right to Work” state, unions will still be required to represent everyone under the contract – including taking grievances to arbitration when appropriate – but no one will have to pay for it.  “It undermines the whole majority-rule aspect of union organizing,” says former National Labor Relations Board attorney Jeff Hirsch.

Consider how one local Kentucky Chamber of Commerce reacted when a business asked to remain a member but cease paying dues. As Gordon Lafer noted last week in The Nation, the local Chamber sent a letter back denying the request and explaining that “it would be unfair to the other…members to allow an organization not paying dues to be included in member benefits.”  “The Chamber’s dues requirement makes sense,” wrote Lafer.  “Without it, the organization would quickly go out of existence.  That, of course, is exactly the Chamber’s agenda for unions.” As Lafer observed, while the Chamber of Commerce is pushing “Right to Work” laws that stick unions with the requirement to represent people for free, the Chamber doesn’t want the same requirement applied to itself.

Forcing unions to proide representation for free threatens their ability to remain financially solvent, and limits their resources to spend on political fights and organizing (unions can’t receive donations from the same sources as other non-profits).  Making all union fees optional also creates an additional opportunity for managers to campaign against the union to employees.  “The employer can start coercing people eery time,” says Cornell Uniersity Labor Education Director Kate Bronfenbrenner, “threatening, intimidating, interrogating, using all the things they use during an organizing drive” to discourage paying the union a dime.

Where unions have flourished despite “Right to Work,” it’s required building a movement in which workers feel not just a stake, but a sense of ownership, one that workers believe not only deserves their dues but requires their time.  Actiists are hoping such a movement is emerging in Indiana.  They’re likely to need it.

Whither Indiana? 

As labor is currently reminding Hoosiers in a new TV ad, Mitch Daniels insisted in 2006 that he had no interest in bringing “Right to Work” to Indiana.  That was a matter of tactics and priorities, not moderation: the day he entered office in 2005, Daniels put an end to two decades of state employees’ collective bargaining by refusing to renew an Executive Order.  He got away with it without the kind of demonstrations marking the capitol today.  State AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott maintains there’s little labor could have done about it: “That was a totally different process – the stroke of a pen.”  But Northeast Indiana Labor Council President Tom Lewandowski says the labor movement has changed since 2005.  “We’re much less institutional and much more representative than we were seen years ago,” says Lewandowski, in part because activists have realized “No one can wait for somebody else to do things, and we’e got to do things ourselves, and the institutional labor movement has been stretched too thin.”  That echoes what activists have been saying in some of the past year’s other uprisings: from Wisconsin, to Ohio, to Occupy everywhere.