The Uncertain Political Consequences of ‘Right-to-Work’

By: - January 27, 2012 12:00 am

Both chambers of the Indiana legislature have now passed a bill that would make it illegal for businesses and unions to negotiate contracts that require employees to pay union fees as a condition of their employment.  This means that Indiana is almost certain to become the 23rd state to enact a “right-to-work” law.

Republicans who have pushed for right-to-work and Democrats who have opposed it both are hoping that the issue will play to their electoral advantage in November. A recent Ball State University poll shows that almost half of Indiana voters are undecided on the issue, making the political consequences of this shift anything but clear. The House flipped from Democratic to Republican control in 2010 and is held by a margin of 60-to-40; Republicans control the Senate by a more comfortable margin of 37-to-13.

Throughout the debate over the issue, Democrats and labor leaders have made clear their intention of “holding Republicans accountable” for their votes on right-to-work at the polls, often jeering remarks to that effect in protests and even in heated committee hearings. “Let the House Republicans explain to the workers of our state why they chose to back a plan that doesn’t put Hoosiers back to work, doesn’t enable these workers to provide for their families, and increases the risk of injury and death in the places where they work,” House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer said in a statement after the House passed the measure on Wednesday.

Republicans believe that in addition to the merits of their position, their comparatively calmer posture during the standoff over the issue will play well with voters. Democrats used on-again, off-again boycotts of the House floor to delay passage of the measure by denying Republicans a quorum to conduct business. “There’s quite a contrast of the style on these two sides,” says Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb . “Hoosiers are much more willing to listen to people who are taking rationally about issues. They want people to go to work and do their job and vote on the issues.”

Adding another level of complexity to the issue is the fact that neither chamber passed the measure on a straight party-line vote. Five Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill in the House, and nine Republicans voted against the measure in the Senate. No Democrats voted yes.

A newly formed PAC that calls itself Lunchpail Republicans has been promising campaign support to Republicans who oppose right-to-work. The PAC also has been recruiting primary challengers for Republicans who support it. “Right-to-work doesn’t work,” says an ad that has been airing on television stations in Indiana. “It’s time to regain our party. In 2012, you will lose big.”

PAC Chairman David Fagan is an officer in International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 and describes himself as a lifelong Republican. He argues that his party is underestimating the power of working class people and says 40 percent of his 23,000-member union also identifies as Republican.

“For those who turned their back on this important constituent base,” he says,  “We will do everything we can to find constituents who are pro-small business and pro-family and run them in primary.”


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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.