Republican leaders in Indiana on Monday declared as their top legislative priority making Indiana a “right to work” state, setting the stage for a new battle over union rights that has already consumed many states.
The proposal would prevent unions from negotiating contracts that would require workers to pay union dues.
The notion instantly set off objections from the state’s union leaders, who said the true aim was to weaken labor unions, and from Democratic lawmakers, some of whom had left the state for more than a month early this year in an effort to block similar provisions.
With an election year approaching, the Republican leaders’ decision to revisit the question places Indiana squarely in the center of a volatile political debate already playing out elsewhere. In Ohio, voters this month overwhelmingly repealed a law limiting collective bargaining for public sector workers, and in Wisconsin, a fight over bargaining rights has led critics of the state’s Republican governor to begin collecting signatures in the hope of recalling him from office.
“We must remove the last barrier to job creation in Indiana,” said Representative Brian C. Bosma, the Republican speaker of the Indiana House, who said the legislation would probably be considered when lawmakers met in January. “Time and again, those charged with bringing new jobs to Indiana have given us very specific evidence that at least a third to a half of businesses looking for where to move take Indiana off the table because we’re not a right-to-work state.”
Mr. Bosma said he was undeterred by indications from states like Ohio and Wisconsin that public opposition might follow new limits to unions. He said the circumstances were different: the other states were focusing on those in the public sector, while Indiana, which already ended collective bargaining for state employees by executive order in 2005, would deal with private-sector businesses and whether to join 22 other states that already limit union shops.
“I wouldn’t undertake it if I wasn’t confident we will succeed,” Mr. Bosma said.
In 2010, Republicans won control of Indiana’s House, giving them majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office. Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is nearing the last of eight years in office, did not comment on the proposal on Monday. He said this month that he was still examining the matter but believed that the union issue was indeed costing the state jobs.
But opponents of the proposal said there was no evidence that unions in Indiana had driven anyone away.
“It’s the kind of a rerun argument you’ve heard in other states,” said Jeff Harris, a spokesman for the Indiana State A.F.L.-C.I.O., who said that 11.8 percent of workers in Indiana were in unions. “I think it’s a little bit of tone deafness out there amongst the legislators.”
Some union members were being encouraged to appear at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, when lawmakers will hold a brief organizational meeting in preparation for next year.
This year, faced with similar proposals, thousands of union supporters held protests there, and House Democrats fled to Illinois to prevent passage of what they viewed as anti-union legislation. Tougher rules penalizing legislators who do not show up have since been instituted, and it seemed uncertain on Monday whether another walkout might occur.
“There’s already a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and this would only exacerbate it,” Representative B. Patrick Bauer, the Democratic leader in the House, said of the Republicans’ plan. He said the Republican majorities would surely be hearing from the public, then added, “Maybe they just feel comfortable that they can absorb the blow.”