The state's union busting provokes little opposition compared to what went on in Wisconsin
I, for one, felt there was one thing missing from an otherwise exciting Super Bowl Sunday in my hometown of Indianapolis. There was nary a public peep from union workers about the twin hammer blows — the second delivered only days before the big game — brought upon their heads by the state’s conservative Republican lawmakers.
Just last week Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels led state legislators to pass a “right-to-work” law — the first in the Midwest — striking at the heart of union dues collection and further weakening a union movement that makes up only 11 percent of the labor force, a shade below the national average. Upon taking office in 2005, Daniels had also terminated collective bargaining with all public employee unions by executive order. Together, Indiana’s anti-union blows were decidedly tougher and more brazen than those delivered by Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
Yet, the popular reaction and public protest in Indiana were relatively mild compared to the seizure of the state capitol and subsequent wave of teacher strikes and extended mass protests centered last year in Madison. Other than leafleting festive crowds with a “remember-the-workers” message, state labor officials and Occupy Indianapolis activists kept a low profile. “We don’t want to disrupt anything. We just want to protest, for people to see us and hear our message,” said one Occupy Indianapolis organizer. Indeed, the Indiana State Federation of Labor reportedly counseled against any Super Bowl demonstrations for fear that politics would be resented at a sporting event. What, then, explains the relative passivity?
In Indiana, union forces never found a way to align their plight with the perceived interests of a majority of Hoosier voters. The Wagner Act of 1935, keystone of labor rights in the private sector, pointedly identified “inequality of bargaining power” among “employees who do not possess full freedom of association” as a cause of business depressions, “by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry.” In that spirit, Indiana union leaders assailed the right-to-work law as an attack on high wages. Yet the argument is no longer self-evident. Today’s Republicans assert, to the contrary, that weaker and fewer unions will relieve the recession by attracting more jobs, even if with reduced pay and benefits. This is a difficult debate to win. No one wants a race-to-the-bottom, says one side. Is there another game in town, asks the other.
An argument centered on the economy already puts the union forces on the defensive. Why should they have to rest their case on statistics of employment growth and business investment over income standards over which they have only limited influence? They are far stronger if they hold to unionism as a principle — i.e., labor rights are human rights. People are better off if they have a say at their workplace. No one today, for example, would publicly advocate restrictions on African-Americans’ or women’s rights in order somehow to jump-start the economy. Note that even Newt Gingrich’s call for sub-minimum wage jobs for poor children did not find a receptive audience. Today, discrimination is taboo in all aspects of society except one: union preference.
Yet, how much do workers themselves — private sector or public sector — value their own union rights? In Wisconsin, the union presence seemed wedded to a deep sense of civic identity, including connection to a long-standing state tradition of “progressive” innovation and peaceful reconciliation of differences among competing social and economic interests.
In Indiana, despite the fact that Indianapolis had once hosted more union headquarters than any other city in America, legislated reduction of the union presence triggered no visible sign of larger public hurt. That the union leaders themselves viewed the issue as “mere politics” betrays their own skepticism that worker rights can truly appeal to the public conscience. Yet they stopped short of making the effort: Had thousands of workers — machinists, teachers, nurses, construction workers, et al. — assembled in a disciplined, nonviolent ring around Lucas Oil Stadium, they might have changed the chemistry for the next round of statewide elections.
Political leadership and strategy were equally absent inside the arena. Like Indiana workers, the NFL Players Association, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, ultimately depends on state and national labor laws that set the framework and standards for collective bargaining. Yet, beyond a press release and letters of protest from a few Indiana-born players to their state legislators, the Players Association dropped the ball in response to the governor’s anti-union assault.
I could only think of how different was the determination of the 1968 Olympic athletes who raised a black-power salute at their official Olympic awards ceremony. If a similar sense of solidarity had been on display in Indianapolis, players from each team might have unfurled a “union” banner — Norma Rae-like — at halftime and carried it aloft to their respective locker rooms. Better yet, they would have handed off the emblems to Madonna, a long-established member of both the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America.
I’m dreaming, of course. This is Indiana.
Leon Fink, who graduated a year prior to Governor Mitch Daniels from Indianapolis’ North Central High School, teaches labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is the author of "Sweatshops at Sea" (2011). More Leon Fink.
More Related Stories
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- UK Military: London attack victim was a "model soldier"
- Billionaire hedge funder: Babies, breast-feeding "kill" focus, keep women from succeeding
- "Bookless library" set to open in Texas
- 2 more arrested in London attacks
- Glenn Beck: CNN interview with atheist tornado survivor was a setup!
- Incoming BBC news director on journalism gender gap: "We can do better"
- Illegal construction, shoddy materials at fault in Bangladesh factory disaster
- Ahead of Obama's speech, U.S. acknowledges four American drone killings
- Must-see morning clip: Bill O'Reilly visits "The Daily Show"
- Lawsuit alleges anti-gay hiring practices at ExxonMobil
- Boy Scouts poised to vote, still greatly divided on gay youth
- House supporters of KXL received $56m from fossil fuel industry
- 80-year-old becomes oldest to climb Mount Everest
- Before FBI shooting man implicated self, Tsarnaev in triple murder
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- UK emergency committee convenes after attack
- Brave scout leader tried to reason with London attackers
- If Alex Pareene were a cable news executive...
- El Salvador court delays ruling on abortion case while woman's life hangs in the balance
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11