August 4, 2011

Debate ‘right to work’

The issue that drove Democratic House members from the Indiana Statehouse to Urbana, Ill., for a five-week walkout and sparked protests involving hundreds of union workers is back on the table, this time before an interim study committee. Now, apart from the heated rhetoric of a legislative session, is when Hoosiers should decide whether a “right to work” bill will add jobs or drive down wages.

The walkout served to remove Senate Bill 395 from the ambitious Republican agenda, and lawmakers assigned discussion of the issue to the Interim Study Committee on Employment Issues. Gov. Mitch Daniels feared the debate would derail other priorities before the General Assembly.

“I wasn’t in favor of its consideration in this last session,” he said last week, “because we hadn’t had this kind of an open process and airing of all the issues. So let’s have that hearing and then we’ll have something more definitive to say.”

But Mitch Roob, Daniels’ secretary of commerce, has no reservations about making Indiana a right-to-work state. He told the study committee last week that as many as a third of all businesses considering relocation bypass the state because it doesn’t make union membership and dues optional.

“The states that have ‘right to work’ sell that against us, just as we sell our AAA credit rating, our balanced budget and our low taxes against a state like Illinois,” Roob said.

Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist, once again argued the case for the right-to-work proponents, claiming higher rates of employment, productivity and personal income growth. But Mary Wolfson, director of the Higgins Labor Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame and former Federal Reserve economist, argued that states that have passed right-to-work laws have not seen meaningful increases in the growth of income and that median household income is significantly lower in right-to-work states than it is in others.

The Times of Northwest Indiana compared unemployment rates of right-to-work states to Indiana’s and found that 10 out of the 22 states had higher jobless rates, including Nevada, with an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent compared to Indiana’s 8.3 percent rate. Of the 12 with lower rates, five are mineral-rich states that have been largely immune to the economic downturn.

And proponents can’t explain why non-union companies such as Honda or Toyota currently have plants in Indiana if right-to-work status is a deal-breaker. Honda has 1,000 Indiana workers in Greensburg, with plans to double that number with the addition of a second shift. Toyota employs about 4,100 at its Princeton plant.

The committee did not hear testimony from the public at its meeting last week, but is expected to do so later. Hoosiers need to consider the repercussions of a right to work law and let lawmakers know what they think. The 2012 session will be too late.