Mitch Daniels’ State of the Union Response Shows GOP Priority: Beating Up on Workers

Last night’s State of the Union response by Mitch Daniels was remarkable before he uttered a single word. Daniels’ response was the first to be delivered from a building surrounded by dozens of police cars and chanting activists, by a man on the cusp of delivering a body blow to workers’ rights. “We were surprised, frankly,” says Jeff Harris of the Indiana AFL-CIO, “that the Republicans would choose somebody who is in open war with his constituents and his citizens and put him up as the national speaker for the Republican Party.” For anyone who thought that progressive victories in Wisconsin and Ohio would lead the national Republican party to tone down the union-bashing, last night was a rude awakening.

Harris, the federation’s Communications Director, says Daniels “has done a phenomenal job of coming off as an average Hoosier, where he rolls around in an RV and wears a flannel shirt, but underneath, he has sold off our resources, he has privatized our welfare system…He is in the midst of busting unions and taking away our right to collectively bargain by making Right to Work his number one legislative priority.”

“Right to Work” is the deceptive title for a right-wing law attacking unions’ ability to wield power and stay solvent. Every remaining GOP presidential candidate has endorsed it, but none of them has pulled off what Daniels may be about to: making this 1% bill a statewide law.

Over the past month, Daniels has been leading the latest assault on workers’ rights in Indiana. His push has instigated near-daily protests by thousands of Hoosiers, both at the capitol and in the home districts of Indiana’s part-time legislators. That resistance, in turn, has inspired legislative boycotts by Indiana’s Democratic representatives, who’ve repeatedly – but not continuously – held “extended caucuses” for days to deny their Republican colleagues the required quorum to push through the bill. With two weeks until Indianapolis hosts the Super Bowl, the game could become the site of even larger protests – and no one knows whether Daniels can get his signature on the bill by then.

Where other GOP governors have taken swipes at organized labor this year, they haven’t proven too popular. Last week Wisconsinites submitted oer a million signatures to force a recall of their Goernor, Scott Walker, whose “budget repair” bill – passed after massive protests, a three-week occupation of the state capitol, and the flight of fourteen Assembly Democrats out of state – shredded collective bargaining for public employees. In November, Ohio Republicans lost big in a statewide referendum on Governor John Kasich’s collective bargaining ban. Unlike Walker and Kasich, Daniels is in his final year of office. If he’s pursuing a future political career – be it as an anti-debt evangelist or a last-minute draftee for president – it will depend more on his popularity among GOP actiists than among Hoosiers.

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But putting Daniels on national TV at the peak of his Wisconsin-style showdown is not the mark of a party backing down from high-profile union-bashing in the face of defeats. Rather, it’s the latest sign that national Republicans are doubling down.

What’s Wrong With “Right to Work”?

Indiana is one of over a dozen states where, since scoring big in the 2010 legislative and gubernatorial elections, Republicans hae been pushing “Right to Work.” “Right to Work” is a government intrusion into the so-called “free market” that supposedly market-happy conseratives can’t get enough of. It bans unions and companies from signing contracts that require those employees who are represented by unions to pay for the costs of that representation.

If it passes, says Uniersity of Indiana law professor Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, “It will weaken unions, it will make it harder to organize people, unions will have less resources, and it will be another blow for the middle class.” Why’s that?

Under federal labor law, unions – whether in the twenty-two “Right to Work” states or in the other twenty-eight – are required to proide equal representation to everyone covered by a labor contract, whether they pay dues or not. And under Supreme Court case law, workers in all fifty states have the option not to pay for any union expenses – like organizing new members or engaging in politics – beyond the direct costs of negotiating a union contract and representing employees.

In other words, under current law in Indiana and other non-RTW states, workers who are covered by a union contract can opt out of paying full union dues, but have to pay for the direct costs of negotiating that contract and defending workers’ rights under it. If Indiana becomes a “Right to Work” state, unions will still be required to represent everyone under the contract – including taking grievances to arbitration when appropriate – but no one will have to pay for it. “It undermines the whole majority-rule aspect of union organizing,” says former National Labor Relations Board attorney Jeff Hirsch.

Consider how one local Kentucky Chamber of Commerce reacted when a business asked to remain a member but cease paying dues. As Gordon Lafer noted last week in The Nation, the local Chamber sent a letter back denying the request and explaining that “it would be unfair to the other…members to allow an organization not paying dues to be included in member benefits.” “The Chamber’s dues requirement makes sense,” wrote Lafer. “Without it, the organization would quickly go out of existence. That, of course, is exactly the Chamber’s agenda for unions.” As Lafer observed, while the Chamber of Commerce is pushing “Right to Work” laws that stick unions with the requirement to represent people for free, the Chamber doesn’t want the same requirement applied to itself.

Forcing unions to proide representation for free threatens their ability to remain financially solvent, and limits their resources to spend on political fights and organizing (unions can’t receive donations from the same sources as other non-profits). Making all union fees optional also creates an additional opportunity for managers to campaign against the union to employees. “The employer can start coercing people eery time,” says Cornell Uniersity Labor Education Director Kate Bronfenbrenner, “threatening, intimidating, interrogating, using all the things they use during an organizing drive” to discourage paying the union a dime.

Where unions have flourished despite “Right to Work,” it’s required building a movement in which workers feel not just a stake, but a sense of ownership, one that workers believe not only deserves their dues but requires their time. Actiists are hoping such a movement is emerging in Indiana. They’re likely to need it.

Whither Indiana?

As labor is currently reminding Hoosiers in a new TV ad, Mitch Daniels insisted in 2006 that he had no interest in bringing “Right to Work” to Indiana. That was a matter of tactics and priorities, not moderation: the day he entered office in 2005, Daniels put an end to two decades of state employees’ collective bargaining by refusing to renew an Executive Order. He got away with it without the kind of demonstrations marking the capitol today. State AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott maintains there’s little labor could have done about it: “That was a totally different process – the stroke of a pen.” But Northeast Indiana Labor Council President Tom Lewandowski says the labor movement has changed since 2005. “We’re much less institutional and much more representative than we were seen years ago,” says Lewandowski, in part because activists have realized “No one can wait for somebody else to do things, and we’e got to do things ourselves, and the institutional labor movement has been stretched too thin.” That echoes what activists have been saying in some of the past year’s other uprisings: from Wisconsin, to Ohio, to Occupy everywhere.

Republicans pushed “Right to Work” last year, just as their Tea-Partying colleagues in other states were pushing their own far-right legislation. They only backed down after protests and a 36-day legislative boycott by Democrats forced a compromise under which Daniels was able to sign into law bills expanding school vouchers and narrowing teachers’ bargaining rights. This year, all signs are it’s “Right to Work” or bust. Harris says that whereas in the past “The stakes have been too high” on other issues for Daniels to dig in on “Right to Work,” “now that he’s on his way out the door, he’s willing to take that gamble and try to sell himself nationally with a right-wing crowd.” As Republicans showed in South Carolina, bashing unions has become the other red meat.

Since the beginning of this month, the capitol has seen regular demonstrations by “Right to Work” opponents. As in Wisconsin, Republicans inadvertently galvanized that opposition early on with attempts to limit the number of protesters allowed in the capitol and prevent public testimony on legislation. “The statehouse access issue,” says Guyott, “caused folks to understand that the point of Right to Work is to silence workers, and they showed their hand just how far they’ll go to silence us.”

Given Republicans’ majorities in both houses of the Indiana legislature, stopping the bill would require either convincing several Republicans to oppose it, or bringing the legislature to a halt. Democratic legislators hae repeatedly gone on “extended caucuses” that temporarily froze State House proceedings by denying a quorum. But Indiana Democratic Party Chair Dan Parker frames such legislative boycotting as a tactic for overcoming Republicans’ “unprecedented restrictions” on minority input, not as a strategy for killing the bill. After Republicans rejected all of Democrats’ proposed amendments to the bill, including a high-profile one that would have put a “Right to Work” referendum on the November ballot, Democrats began their latest “extended caucus” Monday night. They’re expected to allow a quorum today, paving the way for a final House vote this afternoon. “We don’t hae a final vote count,” says Harris, “but we have suspicions of where it will be. We expect it to pass.”

Asked whether he’d rather the Democrats continue denying a quorum, Harris responds, “That’s their decision to make…I’ll leave the parliamentary procedure and whether they go in or out to the legislators. Our role is to educate the members and the general public as best we can.” If the bill passes today, it heads to the Senate, which has a larger Republican majority and lacks a quorum requirement, making a boycott there impossible. On Friday the Senate passed a different version of “Right to Work” by a 28-22 vote, with nine Republicans joining all 13 Democrats in opposition. To deny House Democrats another boycott opportunity, the Senate may hold new votes to pass the House’s version and send it directly to Daniels’ desk. The AFL-CIO says its main focus is getting workers talking to legislators to turn them against the bill.

“Eerything’s very much up in the air here,” says Harris. Though the AFL-CIO hasn’t yet called for them, other activists have already begun planning actions to coincide with the Super Bowl in a week and a half. Those are likely to take place whether or not Daniels has signed a bill by then. “I think the mood is growing,” says Harris.

The Spotlight Lingers

Stephen Lerner, the architect of SEIU’s Justice with Janitors campaign, says attacking labor is a natural priority both for the corporate Right and its Republican allies: “Unions are a key part of what stands in the way of their complete domination of the country.”

Daniels didn’t mention “Right to Work” in his national speech last night. Neither did Obama, whose sole mention of a union, other than “the state of” ours, was in celebrating a CEO that returned jobs from abroad to a unionized American plant (Daniels opened his speech by praising Obama’s support for “long overdue changes in public education,” after Obama called in his speech for making it easier for schools to fire teachers). But whatever Daniels aspires to be next – talking head, party chair, president – he’s on the verge of cementing his right-wing rock star status maintaining his credentials as a Republican that mainstream pundits love to respect. In the moments after Daniels’ speech, as protesters in Indiana were chanting “We are Indiana! Hear our voices!” Chris Matthews was pining on MSNBC for someone like Daniels to run for president. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein began a tweet tweaking Daniels’ budget record with, “I like Daniels.”

Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina primary victory over Mitt Romney only intensified the public yearning of certain conseratives to draft Mitch Daniels back into presidential contention. Far-fetched as that hope may be, it’s enough to secure Daniels increased national media attention in the months to come. So expect to hear more center-left pundits praising Daniels for telling “hard truths” about the need to cut popular entitlements and having a less scary demeanor than Newt Gingrich. Meanwhile, if Daniels presides over making Indiana the first new “Right to Work” state in a decade, he’ll be able to claim a contribution to the conserative movement that most Republican officials can only dream of. And Indiana labor will face an even greater struggle ahead.