RTW: Right-to-Work or Refusing-to-Work?

By: Brian Sikma, Media Trackers

Indiana House Democrats today continued their walkout by refusing to show up for work when the House was scheduled to go into session at 9:00 am. The quorum call found only 62 members present, a handful excused, and the rest absent. Republicans hold a 60-40 majority but to reach a quorum for business there must be 67 legislators present. The presence of only seven Democrats is needed to end the walkout and allow the House to get back to work.

Throughout this latest walkout (the second one this session and the third in the right-to-work debate), Democrat leadership has been unsuccessful in keeping a completely united front. Thursday morning six Democrats were spotted on the House floor but not all of them appear to have cast a vote. If they and just one more of their colleagues were to break away from their caucus and its union bosses, business could resume on the floor and in committee.

A mid-morning press conference was held by Senator David Long (R-Ft. Wayne) to address the Senate’s perspective of the stalemate. Long, the Senate president pro tempore, called the actions of House Democrats “really troubling” and said that the stonewalling was “at the behest of a special interest group.” According to him, in conversations that he has had with the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, the constitutionality of an amendment proposed by Democrats to the right-to-work bill was raised but never seen as an obstacle to a floor vote.

Long said that the agreement was between House leadership and Senate leadership that after the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, both sides would come back for a debate and a series of votes on amendments that Democrats would prepare. Ample time was given for interested parties to draft amendments that would eventually get up or down votes in the House. When Republicans, after merely noting that they believed a measure to put right-to-work up for a statewide referendum vote was unconstitutional, said they would give the amendment a vote, Democrats left their seats and have not returned since.

“Individuals who refuse to do their job,” Long said, “I don’t know of another other job in America where that would stand.” As modest sized protests by union members moved into their third day, he also said that he hoped the opinions of a majority of Hoosiers would cut through the noise of the protesting. “I hope the outrage of the people of Indiana will be heard loud and clear,” he said in an apparent reference not to right-to-work, but the utter refusal of House Democrats to even work at all.

Liberals are now arguing that because right-to-work was not the defining issue of the 2010 election it should not be heard or, alternatively, it should go up for a statewide referendum. In Wisconsin opponents of Governor Scott Walker’s reforms tried to use a similar tactic saying that because Walker didn’t mention collective bargaining reform he and the Republican legislature should not have passed it. But saying that because an issue was not “the” issue (whatever that means) of a particular election cycle binds policymakers to inaction is a pretty specious argument. Besides, Indiana has been debating right-to-work for a number of years now, and bills have been introduced in previous sessions to make the state a right-to-work state.

“When I ran for state Senate in 2010, the people of my district, and people across Indiana were focused on job creation and what we can do to make Indiana’s economy stronger,” said freshman Senator Jim Banks (R-Columbia City). Banks, a rock-ribbed conservative, said that other issues were certainly important, but if right-to-work is a tool to bring jobs to the state and, more importantly, protect the rights of workers, then “we should be dealing with this issue, we should be confronting this challenge head-on.”

Just how long the impasse will last remains to be seen. Republicans have repeatedly said they will allow Democrats to debate the bill and have votes on their amendments to the legislation. Until House Democrats come back to work, Hoosiers will be left wondering if RTW, the common shorthand for right-to-work policies, actually stands for “refusing-to-work.”