January 13, 2012

Right-to-work issue dominating initial stages of 2012 session

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

What’s the “right-to-work” debate all about?

Is it about freedom for Indiana workers, an opportunity for economic growth and a chance to create jobs? Or is it about reducing the strength of unions and creating the “right-to-work for less” that critics claim?

The answer is not clear. What is clear is that the issue has dominated the initial stages of the 2012 legislative session.

Gov. Mitch Daniels, Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tem David. Long, R-Ft. Wayne, have made passing a “right-to-work” bill a priority. Republicans have tied its passage to the economic well-being of the state.

Democrats, with strong labor union sympathies, initially repeated last year’s strategy of not showing up to halt the process, but returned to work on Jan. 9 while keeping open the option of leaving again.

So significant are some of the moral stakes of the bill regarding the right to a just wage, free association and matters of conscience, that the five Indiana Catholic bishops have weighed-in by issuing a two-page statement last month on “right-to-work” detailing the Church’s concerns and offering guidance.

The bishops’ statement reiterates the intrinsic value and respect for the human person as the core value of Catholic social teaching.

It states, “This dignity [of the human person] grounds certain rights including [but not limited to] the right to a just wage; the right to a working environment that is not harmful to the workers’ physical health or to their moral integrity; and the right to assembly and form associations.

While the Church will remain neutral on the specific “right-to-work” legislation under consideration, Church leaders recognize the important moral issues affecting people on both sides of the “right-to-work” debate.

In their statement, the bishops recognize both the importance of workers’ rights to receive a just wage and to form unions.

At the same time, the bishops also support the right of individuals to be free from being forced to pay representation fees to the union, particularly if the union supports organizations or candidates that support abortion or same-sex marriage.

The bishops state, “Workers must be paid a wage that allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligation. The Church supports the right of groups of employees to freely associate and to form unions.”

The bishops also address concerns with certain unions’ activities. “Of particular concern are unions that use their resources to support politicians or political parties that clearly devalue the sanctity of human life or the institution of marriage. The protection of human life, and the integrity of any marriage as the union of one man and one woman, are foundational elements to the common good.”

The bishops strongly defend the rights of individuals to follow their moral conscience and condemn practices which may require individuals to support causes in which they are morally opposed.

“The Church has a sacred reverence for the dignity of conscience and for the right to act in freedom to make moral decisions,” they said. “In keeping with this, any form of coercion on the part of ownership, management or a union is to be condemned.”

Currently, under Indiana law, employees who choose to work for an employer that has a union, while not required to join the union, are required to pay a representation fee to the union since they receive union representation. The “right-to-work” proposal would ban companies or unions from negotiating contracts that require nonmembers to pay representation fees.

Supporters pushing to pass the “right to work” legislation like Bosma say the issue is a simple matter of freedom for the employee who should not have to pay the union anything if not a member.

“Right to work isn’t about unions,” Bosma said. “It is about freedom and economic opportunity. It is about giving all Hoosiers the freedom to choose a job, decide how their hard earned money is spent and bring more employment opportunities to Indiana.”

Critics of the bill, including Nancy Guyott, president of the Indiana state AFL-CIO, said, “If passed, this will have a wide ranging and overwhelmingly negative impact on workers’ wages, safety conditions and rights.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 11 percent of Indiana workers are unionized. Currently, 22 states have “right-to-work” laws. Federal law requires unions to represent all employees, even non-union employees, regardless if they pay a representation fee.

Industries affected by the law include workers in the building trades, industrial sector, some secretarial and administrative personnel, hotel workers, bakers, firefighters and home health care workers.

The Indiana Economic Development Corporation recently issued a report that ranked Indiana sixth nationally as a good place for new businesses.

A joint committee meeting of the House and Senate labor committees was held on Jan. 6 to review House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 269, identical right-to-work proposals. Senate Bill 269 passed the Senate committee by a 6-4 vote. On Jan. 10, House Bill 1001 passed the House committee by a 8-5 vote.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. To read the Indiana bishops’ complete statement on labor issues and for more information on the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to its website at www.indianacc.org.)

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