INDIANAPOLIS — Democrats determined to keep Indiana from becoming the first state in more than a decade to enact right-to-work legislation stymied the beginning of the House session Wednesday and said they planned to stall work indefinitely.
Lawmakers from the state House had last year blocked the bill – which would bar businesses and private unions from mandating that workers pay union fees for representation – through a five-week boycott during which they left the state. That denied Republicans the two-thirds attendance needed to conduct business.
House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer said Wednesday that Republicans were "railroading" the revived measure through the chamber and more public hearings should be held.
"What's the urgency?" said Bauer, who led last year's walkout. "They are ignoring the public input."
Most Indiana House Democrats were no-shows on the floor Wednesday when House Speaker Brian Bosma tried three times to gavel the House into order. He plans to try again Thursday, and said a Democratic boycott won't lead Republicans to back off on the bill.
"We will do our very best to encourage them to do what is right, which is to show up at work and do what they were elected to do," Bosma said. "Democracy is about participating, not going on strike."
He said a joint hearing of the House and Senate labor committees on the bill will take place as scheduled Friday, although the House committee might not be able to take a vote on the proposal.
Bosma and other Republicans contend that the measure got a thorough vetting during a series of hearings last summer.
If Indiana passes the measure, it would be the first state to enact such a law since Oklahoma in 2001, and the 23rd overall. Supporters say it would help attract new business to the state. Opponents call it an attempt to weaken organized labor.
Getting the law passed would be a major victory for national conservatives and business groups, after more than a dozen states considered such legislation last year but none adopted it. It would be another blow to unions, which have fought initiatives to curb labor rights that followed nationwide Republican legislative wins in 2010.
Bauer said his members would not leave Indianapolis this year but would "filibuster" until Bosma agrees to more public hearings. He did not specify how many, but said he wants to meet with Bosma to discuss what it will take for Democrats to return to their seats. Bosma said earlier in the day he had requested meetings with Bauer three times and had not heard back.
When asked how long the Democrats will stay out, Bauer said, "that time schedule is not in our hands."
Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, had called a walkout "the only way" to block the bill.
After Democrats walked out last year, the Republican-led legislature adopted new fines of $1,000-a-day on each lawmaker who boycotts their chamber for more than three days in a row. Concern about the 2012 elections and public response to another walkout may have made some lawmakers wary of another.
Some Democrats broke ranks throughout the day and joined Republicans in the House. Up to six Democrats could return to their seats and there would still not be enough lawmakers to conduct business.
Instead the vast majority of Democrats holed up inside a conference room just steps from the House chamber and spent more than three hours debating tactics on the first day of the 2012 session.
Union protesters packed the halls outside the room and cheered as Democrats entered the room. Others lined the sidewalks outside. The protest crowds were smaller than the largest ones seen during last year's session.
Bosma has said Democrats were bowing to pressure from union leaders, and complained that Indiana AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott spoke to Democrats at their closed-door meeting Wednesday.
However, Bosma and other Republicans pushing the measure have maintained similarly cozy relationships with the state's business lobbyists, keying them in on their plans well ahead of time.
The Indiana AFL-CIO has been airing TV and radio ads targeting Republicans who may be vulnerable in the 2012 elections if they vote in favor of the measure. Bosma and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels have been airing their own ads throughout the state in support of it, and the National Right to Work Committee has sent staffers to the state to build grass-roots support for the measure.