Dems return after Indiana compromise

Democratic and Republican state lawmakers in Indiana on Monday reached a compromise on anti-worker legislation, which ended the Democrats’ 36-day walkout that essentially shut down the Legislature. Democrats  negotiated the compromise from Illinois where they had been in a self-imposed exile since February 22. 

The compromise shelves right-to-work-for-less legislation and a proposal to permanently ban collective bargaining for state employees. It also scales back changes to the state’s prevailing wage law that could lower construction workers’ wages and changes to the education code that set aside tax money for private school vouchers. The compromise does not include proposed legislation that severely limits teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

“This walkout may be coming to an end, but the debate is far from over,” said Nancy Guyott, the Indiana state AFL-CIO president. “Working Hoosiers will continue to stand together.”

The events that led up to the walkout began in February after Republican lawmakers proposed a raft of anti-worker legislation, including HB 1468, a right-to-work-for-less bill aimed at weakening union power and lowering workers’ wages. After HB 1468 was scheduled for a vote in the House, Guyott told union members that “we’ve been bombarded with bill after bill that seek to destroy our way of life and take away our rights,” and she urged members to come to Indianapolis, Indiana’s state capital, for a week of demonstrations beginning on February 21.

As a result,  thousands of autoworkers, steelworkers, teachers, state employees, and other union members descended on Indianapolis, surrounded the capital, and marched into the capital while debate on the right-to-work-for-less bill was taking place in the House.

The strength and vigor of the demonstration gave Democratic lawmakers the courage to do the only thing they could to prevent passage of the bill. They walked out of the statehouse and traveled to Illinois to prevent a quorum.

The day after the walkout began, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who supports right-to-work-for-less, urged lawmakers to kill the bill, which they did. But Democrats stayed away to protest other anti-worker bills. Over the next 36 days, Indiana workers carried out what Jeff Harris of the state AFL-CIO called the “longest sustained protest in the history of Indiana.”

Workers showed up at the statehouse every day to picket, protest, and demonstrate their anger at the Republican anti-worker agenda. On some days, thousands of workers rallied and marched, on other days, a handful of workers were there to remind lawmakers that the anti-worker agenda wouldn’t pass without a fight.

The compromise lessens the impact of two bills, one aimed at lowering construction workers’ wages and the other at providing tax money for private school vouchers. In its original form HB 1216 would have exempted all public construction contracts under $1 million from complying with the state’s common construction requirement, which requires contractors to pay the local prevailing wage to construction workers. Prevailing wage laws prevent contractors from cutting wages so that they can under bid on construction contracts.

Currently public construction contracts under $100,000 are exempt from the common construction requirement. Under the compromise, the threshold will be raised to $250,000 in 2012 and $350,000 in 2013.

The compromise also caps the number of private school vouchers that the state can give out each year to 7,500 in 2012 and 15,000 in 2013. It also lowers the annual income for families eligible for the vouchers from $81,586 a year to $61,189.

Democrats and Republicans also agreed to scrap HB 1585, which would have permanently banned collective bargaining rights for state employees. Currently, state workers in Indiana don’t have collective bargaining rights because in 2005 Gov. Daniels by executive order decreed that the state would not continue to bargain collectively with is workers as it had done previously. That decree is still in effect, but could be overturned when a new governor takes office. Had HB 1585 passed, this option would no longer be available without new legislation.

One of the anti-worker bills not part of the compromise is SB 575, which severely limits the collective bargaining rights for teachers. If this bill is enacted, teachers would only be able to bargain for wages and some benefits. They would no longer have a voice in setting working conditions or giving input regarding performance evaluations.

In a recent statement to members, the Indiana State Teachers Association said that it is currently engaged in talks with lawmakers to amend this bill, but said that so far, “no clear consensus has been reached on the bill,” which will be heard in the House Education Committee this week.

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