February 2012, Week 2


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Portside Labor <[log in to unmask]>
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Mon, 13 Feb 2012 08:38:32 -0500
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What's the Matter with Indiana?
	The state's union busting provokes little opposition
	compared to what went on in Wisconsin

by Leon Fink


February 7, 2012


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

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).]


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