INDIANAPOLIS – The leader of Indiana's House Democrats said Friday that an end could be near to their three-day boycott over a right-to-work bill that has started moving through the Legislature despite their protest.
House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said his party members will not cave to the threat of costly fines but know they can't block the Republican-backed bill forever.
A Republican-dominated state Senate labor committee voted 6-4 on Friday to send the bill to the full Senate, where the GOP holds a 37-13 majority and the party's leader has made its passage a top priority. The bill would prohibit employment contracts that require workers to pay mandatory union representation fees.
Minutes after that vote, the House again was unable to convene as most Democrats stayed away for a third day, leaving the chamber with too few members present to take official action.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said afterward he wasn't ready yet to start hitting Democrats with $1,000-a-day fines, which Republicans pushed through after a five-week boycott last year over the same issue. Bosma called that step a "last resort."
Bauer said all 40 House Democrats might show up on the House floor Monday for the first time this year, comments that came after the third-ranking leader of the caucus joined three other Democrats in breaking the boycott.
Rep. Dale Grubb, D-Covington, said he resigned Friday as Democratic caucus chairman but wouldn't criticize Bauer or the way the protest was being handled.
"I'm hopeful that the two leaders, maybe over the weekend, can get together and discuss some timing about allowing the quorum to be present and adequate time for discussion and airing of the bill," Grubb said.
Bauer said he knew blocking the right-to-work bill would be more difficult this year after Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels endorsed it after declining to do so last year.
"We know we can't stay out indefinitely," he said.
The Senate committee's vote on the bill followed five hours of testimony during which hundreds of protesters watched from a hallway and the packed public balcony of the House chamber where the meeting was held.
Supporters of the bill say it would make the state more attractive to employers, while opponents maintain it is an attack on unions and would drive down wages. Twenty-two states, predominantly in the South, have right-to-work laws.
Conservative Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, joined the committee's three Democrats in voting against the bill. He questioned experts who backed the proposal, saying he is not convinced of the measure's economic benefits.
Waltz asked the president of the Oklahoma chamber of commerce whether the energy industry had a greater impact on that state's economic fortunes than its status as the last state to adopt a right-to-work law, which it passed in 2001.
Oklahoma chamber President Fred Morgan told the committee that the law gives his state a competitive advantage over Indiana in attracting new businesses.
Waltz said after the hearing he was troubled by the unwillingness of right-to-work supporters to identify companies who won't consider Indiana because it lacks such a law and that he hadn't encountered that argument during his work as an investment banker.
"I've not heard one person tell me that right-to-work was relevant in their decision to come here or their decision not to come here," Waltz said.
John Sampson, president of the Fort Wayne-based Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, told the labor committee he believed the law is needed to make the state more competitive and boost its economy at a time when its unemployment rate is at 9 percent.
"It matters in our ability to attract those companies that will create those jobs," he said.
Union members cheered from the hallway when a steelworkers union leader argued that the push was merely a drive to weaken unions.
Protesters in the gallery later applauded when a Republican county council member and pipefitters union member from northwestern Indiana argued that the right-to-work law went against the party's principles by allowing people to get something for nothing since federal law requires unions to represent nonmembers covered by their contracts.
"Let capitalism take care of itself," said Luke Abbott of Newton County.
The NFL Players Association also weighed in on the proposal Friday, saying Republicans were trying to "ram through" the legislation before Indianapolis hosts the Super Bowl on Feb. 5. In a statement the group called the proposal "a political ploy designed to destroy basic workers' rights."