Indiana labor pushes back

March 14, 2011

Tithi Bhattacharya reports on the ongoing resistance by organized labor and the left to the corporate-driven right-wing agenda in Indiana.

MORE THAN 10,000 workers, trade unionists, retirees, students, professors and graduate employees gathered March 10 to stop the reactionary momentum of a state rapidly becoming the Arizona of the Midwest.

The protesters rallied to oppose pending legislation before a Republican-controlled legislature that would further restrict collective bargaining for workers; pave the way for the use of state funding to support charter schools; pass an Arizona-style anti-immigration bill; and make Indiana the first state to bar all federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

The crowd, which had awakened that day to the news of the Republican backdoor vote destroying collective bargaining in Wisconsin the night before, was angry, energized and raring for a long fight.

"If we go down, everyone goes down," said Ron Seals, a member of United Autoworkers Local 685 from Kokomo.

A caravan of Teamster trucks circled the Indiana State House. From the massive stage extending outward from the rear side of the building, rap music boomed out across a plaza of workers: "One Day Longer--The People's Voice is Stronger."

Union members protest at the Indiana statehouse against right-to-work legislation
Union members protest at the Indiana statehouse against right-to-work legislation (Carole Ramsden | SW)

"This is bigger than the individual bills," said Mary Dooley, a retired schoolteacher and psychologist from Plainfield. "This is about democracy and a corporate takeover of our government."

INDIANA HAS suddenly found itself at the center of the right-wing offensive sweeping the nation's Republican-controlled state governments. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels made the abolition of collective bargaining one of his first legislative victories in 2005, an action that has become the prototype for attacks on workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and other states.

In February, Indiana Senate Democrats, taking a cue from their Wisconsin colleagues, went into exile in Illinois in order to successfully forestall a vote on a "right-to-work" bill. The legislation died as a result, but may still be revived.

Even if it's defeated, Indiana workers still confront a number of potentially lethal legislative initiatives that could potentially remove the right to collective bargaining from public employees at the local level. The bill, if passed could also prohibit local communities from establishing living wage laws in excess of the state determined minimum wage.

Scott Taylor, a member of Laborers Local 120 in Hendrick County, said he came out to the rally to prevent Wisconsin-style anti-legislation from occurring in Indiana. "If we don't support our brothers and sisters, there will be jobs and no collective bargaining," he said. "Everybody's coming together."

Dede Miller, a member of Local 47 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Indianapolis, said nearly 75 percent of the membership in her 680-member union had come out for the demonstration. Far from being cowed, she was angry and energized by the quick vote to ram through anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, which she called "sneaky." After the rally, she said, she would be on her way to a skin cancer treatment to be paid for with health insurance provided by her unionized job.

A massive turnout by teachers at the Indianapolis demonstration reflected not only solidarity with other labor sectors, but also the right-wing legislative attempts to privatize public education in Indiana. Current legislation would authorize private firms to be hired to evaluate teacher performance without any teacher input as well as use state funding to provide vouchers for use in private schools. Schools that did not meet certain performance standards would be transferred to private for-profit corporations.

Regina Bradford, a Gary public school teacher whose union successfully struck for better wages and work conditions in 2006, said she was there not for herself, but for other workers under attack. Indiana government needs to "meet the demands of the people" she said. As she spoke, a head of one of Indiana's largest teacher's union echoed her words from the soundstage: "Collective bargaining is our voice."

Graduate Employee Organizations from University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, and Purdue University were strongly represented at the labor rally. Students at Purdue have also recently mobilized to form Purdue Against Tuition Hikes, a movement responding to the university's recent overtures towards increased privatization. For its part, GEO at the University of Illinois successfully won collective bargaining rights in 2009 and currently represent more than 2,700 Teaching and Graduate Assistants at the campus.

The pending anti-immigration bill, SB 590, would provide police the same powers to interrogate citizens about their immigration status as the SB 1070 legislation in Arizona.

The anti-immigrant campaign, led by Republicans, has been a scorched-earth response to the upsurge in Latino immigration into Indiana since the 1990s. Latino workers now occupy significant jobs in farming, light industry, auto and small business across the state. In 2006, more than 25,000 marched in Indianapolis for immigration reform, an action that also helped to galvanize the movement towards SB 590.

Just after conclusion of the labor rally, about 100 people gathered outside the State House to protest SB 590, including students from Depauw University in Indiana. The students carried signs reading "Racial Profiling is Illegal." The anti-SB 590 movement and labor movements need to fight alongside one another in Indiana.

In fact, the battle in Indiana is taking on epic proportions, with fights underway against legislation to ban gay marriage, and defund Planned Parenthood. A recent rally brought 400 people to the State House to fight back against 17 bills pending before the Indiana General Assembly seeking to in some form or other to limit reproductive rights and reduce funding for Planned Parenthood in Indiana. The Indiana House in February passed by a wide margin a bill to make same sex marriages and civil unions illegal.

Solidarity will be required on many fronts in Indiana to beat back the tide of reaction. The mood on the ground is angry and determined. Rank-and-file union members, students and ordinary citizens are in no mood to give into these attacks on their livelihoods.

But the union leadership will likely want to stem the tide of this militancy and shepherd people towards electoral options. However, waiting for elections means the right will be able to advance its agenda

There is an alternative. All around the world--and now in this country--to the working class has clearly shown that we can fight back. Egypt and Tunisia also show that we can win. Workers in Indiana appear to be up to the challenge.

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