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Industrial Midwest States Challenge Union Power


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we will have an update on a story that rocked the Catholic Church. It's been a decade since the Boston Globe broke the story about priests preying on children in the Archdiocese and the church leaders who failed to stop them. We'll talk more about the impact of that story and what's happened since then. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But we want to begin today's program with the continuing debate over labor rights in this country. In two Midwestern states where unions have been historically strong, Republican leaders want to dial down the power of organized labor.

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker moved to strip most public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights and he won after a tough fight. But teachers, firefighters, and other public employees who are covered by this law are fighting back. A recall effort against Governor Walker is underway and a petition to oust the governor will be submitted next week.

Then in Indiana, a bill is moving through the Republican-controlled general assembly that would prohibit union contracts in private sector businesses from requiring non-union employees to pay dues when they work alongside union workers. A vote is set for next week. Almost half the states in the country have similar laws, but they're mainly in the South and the West.

We wanted to talk more about these issues, so we've called upon two reporters who are following them closely. Brandon Smith covers the Indiana General Assembly for Indiana Public Broadcasting and Shawn Johnson covers the state capital for Wisconsin Public Radio. Welcome, gentlemen. Thanks so much for joining us. Happy New Year.

BRANDON SMITH, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Brandon, let's start with you. This is Indiana's second attempt at passing this. It's been called a right to work bill. The Republican House couldn't get it done last year because of other priorities and also Democrats fled to Illinois to prevent a vote. But that's not going to happen this time. Could you just bring us up to date and tell us whether Tuesday's vote is expected to go forward. And then I want to hear why the Republicans are so eager to pass this and why the Democrats are fighting so hard against it?

SMITH: Well, I'll start with Tuesday's vote. Tuesday's vote is the next step in the process and that would involve amendments to the bill. So, it won't be for final passage on Tuesday, but there will be amendments to the bill. And yesterday, I would have said, yes, that vote will happen. But today, I'm not so sure.

Pat Bauer, the House minority leader, a Democrat from South Bend, came out today and said we want to put forward an amendment that will make right to work a referendum. That we will put it to the public in November for them to vote on it. But there are some technical issues where the speaker might not allow that to happen because of a bill also filed in the House right now.

So, if that happens, if the speaker announces that he won't allow that particular amendment to be heard, then Pat Bauer and the Democrats may stage another walkout, may prevent business from being done. So, that vote may or may not happen on Tuesday.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. So, the maneuvering aside, can you tell us about the substance of the bill? Why are the supporters supporting it and why are the opponents against it?

SMITH: Sure. right to work, like you said, prevents unions from charging non-members fees for representation. And supporters of right to work say this is a basic worker freedom issue that nobody should be compelled to support any organization with money as a condition of employment. It also has to do with jobs. Supporters of right to work in Indiana will say that anywhere from a third to a half of companies looking to move to Indiana won't even consider it because it's not a right to work state. And with unemployment at 9 percent in the state they think that this will bring in more jobs to Indiana.

Opponents of right to work particularly mainly Democrats say this isn't about jobs because you can't name any of the companies who say they won't come to this state. This isn't about worker freedom because they aren't forced to join the union. This is about union busting. You want to take down unions with this bill. And as unions are a major supporter of the Democrats, they have a problem with that.

MARTIN: And is it fair to say that on both sides there's particular attention here because the Midwest is seen as kind of a beachhead, that there's an idea that they want to kind of set up a firewall against these efforts to weaken union power in the Midwest because the South is already very hospitable to those who don't agree with unions, the South and the West. And they're trying to sort of keep the Midwest as a stronghold. Is that fair? Do you think that's fair to say?

SMITH: Absolutely that's fair to say. But certainly more the Democrats because they want to bring more attention to this issue, but both sides are, I mean, this is a major step for the Midwest in general. Indiana to become the first Midwestern, really, Midwestern state to have this law and supporters think that's a great thing. They think that'll make Indiana even more attractive to businesses who want to move here.

MARTIN: Shawn Johnson, lets bring you in. There's been a lot of national attention paid to the situation in Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker had a battle royale with the Democrats in this legislature there against an effort to strip the public sector unions of their bargaining rights. And as we've discussed, they are now trying to recall the governor for this. Where do things stand on that story?

JOHNSON: Well, the recall drive is winding down. Once they start a recall petition drive they have 60 days to complete it. They have to get a quarter of all the signatures that were cast in the last election for governor. That adds up to about 540,000 signatures. And, you know, we don't know how many signatures they have, but if you take Democrats at their word, they're going to hit that number and exceed it when they turn in their signatures next Tuesday.

And so, once that happens, you know, and we're one step closer to having an election with the governor and a Democratic candidate, although it could be a long time before that happens just because of the pending court fight over the signatures that are turned in.

MARTIN: We have to assume that there's going to be a lot of kind of squirmishing over the signatures. But let's just say that the vote does go forth. How do you assess it, you know, at this point? Well, how do you think that the sort of the - what is the mood there right now about all this squirmishing about this issue? Are people still as intensely interested in it or have they moved on to other issues?

JOHNSON: I mean, it's a pretty - it's pretty touchy to talk politics in Wisconsin. And people's views of Governor Walker are pretty hardened. I mean, he has people who love him, who, you know - and in terms of what they do for him to help win the election, basically walk over hot coals. And then he has people who really detest him.

And, you know, you have - in the number of signatures that they're going to likely turn in next Tuesday - and that goes beyond just the public sector employees and unions that were affected by that collective bargaining bill - that hits a barter swap to Wisconsin. And, you know, it's a significant chunk of the electorate who has a big enough problem with the governor that they would, you know, take this extraordinary step. So, it's a very polarized state right now. And, you know, people are still talking about collective bargaining. But the end of the debate has also moved onto other issues where, you know, the governor has advanced a number of conservative causes that were thwarted over the past couple decades.

MARTIN: Shawn Johnson covers state politics in Wisconsin, as does Brandon Smith in Indiana. We're talking about efforts to weaken unions in those states through various means.

Brandon Smith, let's go back to Indiana. Indiana unlike most states has a budget surplus. So, I wanted to ask the same question I asked Shawn which is what's the mood there among - on both sides?

SMITH: Well, it's hard to get a feel inside the state house because inside the state house it's been nothing but protestors, primarily union folks, who have come out pretty much every day of this session which started last Wednesday. So, inside the state house you would think there was an overwhelming support against right to work. But as far as the state as a whole, it's a fairly conservative state.

And I talked to a political science professor here in Indianapolis just the other day. And he pointed out that there isn't the same kind of strong support for unions anymore. It's more of an apathy towards unions. That they aren't necessarily opposed to them, but they don't feel that they serve the same kind of purpose that they did a generation ago.

MARTIN: You know, we've been so much engaged with the whole question of the Occupy Movement in some of the, you know, major cities particularly on the East Coast and the West Coast. You know, obviously New York where the movement started and Washington and Atlanta and then on the West coast and in Oakland. They have been making the argument that our public...

...East Coast and the West Coast. You know, obviously New York, where the movement started, and Washington and Atlanta and then on the West Coast, in Oakland - they've been making the argument that our public policy is - they might not be as articulate as many people would like around these issues, but they've at least raised this question of whether our politics are really focused upon advantaging the few at the expense of the many.

And I'm wondering whether that whole sentiment has permeated the discussions around union rights. And Brandon, I'll ask you that question.

SMITH: Well, I would think that supporters of Right to Work would say they're - this is exactly what Right to Work is about, that private sector unions only comprise about nine percent of workers in the state of Indiana and - anywhere from nine to 11 percent - and so are - you know, and yet we still have incredibly high unemployment, higher than the national average. It's stayed that way for a while right now. And so to deny the possibility of jobs and perhaps even a lot more jobs by making it a Right to Work state - and they also feel that, far from union busting, supporters of Right to Work say that this will actually strengthen unions, that it will make them more accountable to their workers, that they will have to go out and say, hey...

MARTIN: This is what I'm doing for you. You know, earn their money, so...

SMITH: Exactly.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Well, Shawn Johnson, what about in Wisconsin? I mean, the argument there was that teachers and other workers covered by these need these union protections in order to maintain middle class salaries. And so has that kind of - that whole argument around income and equality and fairness, has that permeated the conversation in Wisconsin or not?

JOHNSON: Yeah. You definitely heard both sides use the - you know, the rights of the few versus the rights of the many argument. When it comes to unions and Democrats, they've said that the - you know, the governor's policies basically are designed to reward businesses, a small section of businesses, and the wealthy in Wisconsin, since, you know, he wants to cut taxes for businesses and would like to reduce the tax burden for, you know, wealthier individuals, and they say that the way he's able to pay for that is by, you know, cutting, you know, these benefits, cutting the take home pay for these middle class workers.

On the other side, I remember well, during all the protests that we had last year in Wisconsin when at times you'd have tens of thousands of people outside the capitol shouting, chanting. You could hear it very plainly in the governor's conference room and when he would talk to the media, he would say they have a right to protest, but I'm not going to let the voices of a few thousand drown out the voices of millions, those millions being the rest of the residents of Wisconsin, and the people that the governor says gave him a mandate in November of 2010 when they elected him.

MARTIN: And finally, Shawn, we only have a couple seconds left, like literally like half a minute left. We've talked about the governor. How is he doing?

JOHNSON: You know, he's somewhat unflappable. He doesn't really show signs that this personally affects him. He hasn't spent as much time in Wisconsin recently. He's been traveling around the country, basically on a public speaking tour and raising considerable money from, you know, throughout the country.

MARTIN: Shawn Johnson is a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio. He covers state politics. He joined us from member station WHA in Madison, Wisconsin. Brandon Smith is a reporter for Indiana Public Broadcasting. He covers the general assembly. He joined us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.