Democrats Return to Indianapolis

Exiled Indiana Democratic state legislators returned from Illinois March 28 and were greeted by hundreds of union well-wishers as they re-entered the Indianapolis statehouse after five weeks’ absence.

During that time daily rallies echoed through the Capitol dome as tens of thousands of Hoosiers raised their voices in defense of their unions and their schools.

The Democratic walk-out seems to have knocked out some of the Republican-proposed legislation, but other pieces are still moving.

Both parties declared victory. The Democrats said they had halted right to work, preserved collective bargaining rights for teachers and shielded public schools from the worst privatization attempts. Republicans denied that much had changed since the Democrats left.

Some Democratic House members were circumspect. “We’ll do what we can,” one Democratic legislator said as he shook hands in the welcoming crowd, “but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

March 10 rally at the Indianapolis Statehouse. Photo: United Steelworkers.March 10 rally at the Indianapolis Statehouse. Photo: United Steelworkers.

Upon their return, legislators entered the Capitol and immediately went into session, approving an amendment that would compromise the pay and rights of construction workers. The vote was 97-0.

David Williams of the Laborers said the union was still trying to figure out exactly what the amendment would mean, but called it bad news. For the building trades, “this will be as bad in many ways as right to work,” he said.

The amendment would undermine wages for construction workers by abolishing prevailing wage rules—called “common wage” in Indiana—for any government construction project under $250,000. Next year the threshold would rise to $350,000. Republicans had originally proposed a threshold of $1 million.

Project Labor Agreements could be used only if passed by public referendum in the relevant jurisdiction. PLAs guarantee union labor standards on complicated projects in return for a union promise not to take job actions.

Prevailing wage laws take wages out of competition, allowing contractors—union or non-union—to bid for jobs without undercutting their workers’ livelihood. Williams predicted that without Indiana’s common wage law, construction wages would drop to a bare minimum.

Right to Work Dormant

Democrats apparently extracted pledges from Republican lawmakers that a right-to-work bill would lie dormant in a study committee and not be considered again this session.

Republicans also dropped a proposed law preventing any governor from recognizing state employee unions. Governor Mitch Daniels cancelled state employee contracts when he took office in 2005, but previous governors had negotiated contracts with Indiana’s state workers.

Also apparently shelved was a law that would have allowed private companies to take over schools the state deemed “failing.”

Unionists were wary, however. There is nothing procedural to stop these measures from being resurrected.

The Democrats appear to have made a deal to publicly fund vouchers for private school, but in scaled-back form, with 7,500 students covered in the first year and 15,000 the next.

"I'm afraid we're just going to have to live with the end result,” Marisa Graham, a kindergarten teacher, told the Indianapolis Star as she greeted the returning Democrats in front of the statehouse. "And in a few years, people will realize that it didn't work and we'll have to rebuild our public education system."