At the heart of Indiana's current battle over right-to-work legislation is union power. By some estimates, the legislation would impact 34,000 workers and give them the choice of belonging to a union. Without right-to-work laws, workers must join a union as a condition for employment. The worker is not given a choice in the matter and employers are barred from hiring otherwise qualified employees if they choose to not join a union.
Indiana House Democrats are obstructing the passage of right-to-work legislation by repeatedly walking out on the legislative process. On Tuesday, they said the reason for their afternoon walkout was to protest Republican opposition to an amendment they would offer to place right-to-work legislation to a statewide referendum vote. Wednesday morning the Democrats rallied in the statehouse rotunda with a modest crowd of union supporters and pledged to stay out "one day longer, one day stronger."
The only problem with the referendum is that Indiana, unlike its neighbor Ohio, doesn't have a referendum mechanism. Only state constitutional amendments must pass a statewide vote.
What right-to-work opponents want is something that has never been done in Indiana for a regular piece of legislation. One lawmaker, Rep. Tim Wesco (R), said that putting a bill to a referendum vote would be "without precedent." There is simply no constitutional provision requiring or even allowing a referendum to take place. Such extra-constitutional legislating does not appear to bother House Democrats who, led by Minority Leader Pat Bauer, have consistently resorted to walkouts as a means of blocking legislative business.
In Ohio the death knell for union reform was sounded when unions and their allies were able to push SB 5, Governor John Kasich's collective bargaining reform measure, to a statewide vote. The measure was soundly defeated, but only after a petition process that saw over a quarter of the signatures gathered thrown out for fraud or other errors. Observers noted that a critical difference between Ohio's battle and the one faced by states like Wisconsin, is that the reforms have had a chance to go into effect in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and public support for them has then increased over time. In Ohio, the battle was reasoned arguments versus union scare tactics and with the reforms unable to go into effect, the public was denied the chance to see how effective the measure really could be.
Unions are pushing hard to put the Indiana right-to-work measure up for a referendum because they are hoping to preserve their power by imitating Ohio. That such an imitation would be extra-constitutional does not bother them. After all, their lip service to "this is the people's house," and "power to the people" is only a charade to give some semblance of legitimacy to their repeated efforts to shut down legislative business. The people of Indiana elected the current make-up of the state legislature. Shutting down the legislature to promote a measure that the legislature has no constitutional authority to enact is not democracy - it is power politics at its worst.
If unions and Indiana Democrats are really interested in using a referendum mechanism to deal with union reform, they should reintroduce their proposal as a Constitutional amendment that could go to the people for a vote. Alternatively, they could introduce a Constitutional amendment to create a referendum system in Indiana. Both of these approaches would be more legitimate than their current temper tantrums and would at least give a passing nod to the idea that government should respect parameters established by the state Constitution.