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December 12, 2010

Terre Haute union leaders ready to fight ‘right to work’ bill

Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A decade and a half ago, one of Indiana’s largest political protests brought more than 22,000 workers from across the state to the front steps of an Indianapolis government center, protesting a prevailing wage law.

Now, union leaders in Terre Haute say they may once again return to filling busloads of workers to drive to the state’s capital to voice opposition to a “right to work” bill.

“We are definitely 100 percent against it. We will fight it tooth and nail, and if we have to bring another 25,000 to 50,000 workers in buses to Indianapolis, we will do that, too,” said Charlie Toth, business manager for the Laborers International Local No. 204 in Terre Haute.

His comments referred to a March 14, 1995, protest rally in Indianapolis backed by the AFL-CIO and Indiana State Building & Construction Trades Council.

“People hear ‘right to work’ and think it means they have a right to work where they want to, and that’s not what it means. It’s a right to work for less, that’s what it truly means,” said Toth, who represents 1,000 union members.

State Rep. Wes Culver, R-Goshen, filed a bill Monday that would make it a criminal offense for any employer to compel union membership as a requirement for employment. Twenty-two states have laws that essentially require unionized workplaces to become “open shops” that must allow employees to work, whether or not they join the associated unions or pay regular dues.

The only Midwestern states with such laws are Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Similar bills have been proposed in Indiana in the past, most recently in 2004 and 2008.

“Anybody that believes that a person making $30 an hour is not better for the community than the person making $7 an hour is an idiot,” Toth said. “They will buy a better house, a better car, go on vacation and go to ball games and to the show. They pay local taxes and help the community.

“People who vote against that want you come into their stores and restaurants and spend the money, but they will not have it. They will not be in there,” Toth said of the lower wage earner.

David Wulf, public policy chairman for the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, said there are two main reasons to allow open shops in Indiana. The first is economic development.

“We are being told at the Indiana Chamber [of Commerce] that we are missing one out of three relocation opportunities for business. We are being told that we are not even being contacted because it is a check-box thing. They go through the whole list of features of the state and if we are not right-to-work, a little more than a third of the prospective business deals just stop right there,” Wulf said.

“It is also a social justice issue for workers where they are required to pay union dues, many who would prefer not to be a member of the union,” Wulf said, adding that some union dues can be used for political campaigning.

R. Todd Thacker, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 725, disagrees.

“We see RTW [right to work] as it being forced representation. We, as labor unions, would be forced to represent some of these people who don’t want to pay their way, and I don’t think that is the American way,” said Thacker, who represents 700 members in nine Indiana counties and six counties in Illinois.

In Indiana, of the more than 2.6 million workers, 277,000 workers were members of unions in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That represents 10.6 of the state’s work force. Add in workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union or an employee association contract, and that number swells to 319,000 workers, or 12.2 percent of the work force.

New York has the highest percentage of union members at 25.2 percent, and 27.2 percent with workers covered by a union or employee association contract.

“The union construction industry spends over $27 million a year in training and every union member pays their fair share of training,” Thacker said. “Under this legislation that is proposed, we would not have the money to provide that education. We feel like we turn out the best-trained people, but that comes at a cost.

“We also provide the service that members get their pension and health care, so they have a retirement,” Thacker said. “It costs money to have those services.”

“As a union, we are transparent on all the costs to our members. My wages and my expenses are all public on the Internet. Also, what we pay to have the grass mowed, pay for electric bill and pensions for staff members. That is all public knowledge,” he said.

Another measure to favor right to work, Wulf said, is control for a business.

“Business prefers a non-union environment because it gives them more control over the work practices and how they run their business and allows them to work directly with their employees as opposed as to having an intermediary between them and their employees,” Wulf said.

“It allows business more flexibility to meet employees’ needs directly as opposed to being told how do that,” he said. “One reason we are seeing a decline in unions is employers have discovered, unlike how we were in the 1920s and 1930s, if we want the flexibility of working directly with our employees, and not have that taken by a union, we have to treat our employees fairly. You will find most non-union employers are paying benefits and wages pretty much comparable to what is found in the union settings, in most cases,” Wulf said.

Wulf said the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, while supportive, will not be actively involved in the issue, leaving legislative lobbying up to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

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