INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Union leaders and Democrats facing a barrage of labor-related proposals since the legislative session started in early January hadnt been able to do much to slow them down until House Democrats took the bold step of fleeing the state Feb. 22.
Now they're using the three-week-old boycott and a series of rallies to fuel the showdown that carries high stakes for both parties.
Republican legislators aim, among other things, to strictly limit collective bargaining for teachers, permanently ban union contracts for state workers and exempt many government construction projects from the state's prevailing wage law. They're looking to capitalize on the big majorities voters handed them in both chambers last November.
Democrats argue the GOP proposals are a wide assault on workers' rights that justifies their continued boycott. A uniting factor is the knowledge that Republicans control the process of redrawing all 150 Senate and House districts this year, which make it difficult for Democrats to undo any legislation approved this year or next for years to come.
Republicans maintain their aim is to work with GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels to improve Indiana's economy and education system -- not to weaken unions in the workplace and politically.
Republican House Majority Leader William Friend of Macy says the GOP lawmakers were elected by "people who want and expect some change" and were eager to take action.
"There was some pent-up hunger, anticipation that Republican ideas could move," he said.
The Democrats' walkout blocked one of those ideas -- a "right-to-work" bill that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment at most private-sector companies, have fanned the flames of labor activists. Republican leaders have declared that issue dead for this year.
But Democrats say many other proposals scattered throughout various bills are aimed at "union busting."
Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, said during a Senate debate that the bill aimed at permanently banning collective bargaining for state employees was a "war on unions."
Tallian cited the bill's language that any union contract involving state employees "is contrary to public policy and is illegal, unlawful, unenforceable, void, and of no effect."
"Now how much more incendiary language can you put into a statute?" she said. "How much more clearly can they be in the declaration that this is a war on unions, and I mean all of them?"
Senate labor committee Chairman Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, said the bill was aimed at putting into law the collective bargaining ban that Daniels implemented by executive order the day after he took office in 2005.
That action canceled labor agreements for about 25,000 state workers and reversed orders under Democratic governors the previous 16 years permitting such union contracts.
That bill stalled in the Senate because of concerns that it would prohibit collective bargaining by local government and university workers. Boots said that wasn't his intention and that he hoped to advance the state ban later this session.
Teacher unions unhappy with the GOP agenda say they are being targeted with proposals to limit contracts with local districts to wages and wage-related benefits -- and banning agreements on subjects such as teacher hiring and evaluation, student discipline and class sizes. A bill approved by a House committee would also prohibit payroll deductions by school districts for teacher union dues.
Boots said he wouldn't support a payroll deduction ban but that the limits on teacher union bargaining were needed along with other education proposals such as teacher merit pay and allowing state-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.
"I don't think we get these other reform efforts put in place if we can't control the administration of the schools," he said.
Republicans have been able to move ahead with many of those issues because of a 12-House seat gain in the November election that gave them a 60-40 majority -- the biggest for either party in more than 25 years to go along with a GOP 37-13 super-majority in the Senate.
Democrats were able to repeal Indiana's right-to-work law in 1965, which was the last time their party controlled the governor's office and both chambers of the General Assembly as the GOP now does. But the GOP-led redistricting process could make the chances of Democrats regaining a majority in either chamber more remote.
The boycotting House Democrats have narrowed their list of objections to the bills dealing with school vouchers, limits on teacher collective bargaining and the prevailing wage law exemptions.
Friend, the House majority leader, said Republicans were willing to listen to Democrats' concerns but that they needed to return to the Statehouse for debate.
Labor bills in Legislature
The Associated Press
A look at some Republican-sponsored proposals in the Indiana General Assembly that have drawn objections from Democrats and labor and teacher unions:
* Teacher collective bargaining: Senate has approved a bill limiting teacher contract negotiations to only salaries, benefits and total number of work days. A Senate-passed bill on merit pay for teachers would not allow those with poor evaluations to receive automatic pay raises,
* Government construction projects: Bill pending in House would increase from $150,000 to $1 million the point at which projects were exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law and remove school districts and state universities from its requirements. Supporters say more nonunion contractors would then bid on public projects,
* Right to work: Boycott by House Democrats started after a House committee advanced a bill that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment at most companies. GOP leaders say the issue is dead for this year,
* Unemployment fund: Gov. Mitch Daniels has signed into law a fast-tracked plan that is expected to reduce the state's jobless payments by 25 percent while reducing business tax increases approved in 2009 that were taking effect this year. The plan aims to repay $2 billion that the fund has borrowed from the federal government to pay benefits, and
* Union votes: Bill pending in House would guarantee secret ballots in union elections. Business groups have sought such state measures because they fear Congress could pass a new "card check" law requiring employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers signs cards. Senate has passed resolution to put requirement in state constitution.