Indiana governor signs right-to-work bill

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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana became the Rust Belt’s first right-to-work state Wednesday in a move that is sure to embolden advocates seeking to curtail union rights across the country. But whether other states can replicate the conservatives’ success in Indiana is less certain.

The political factors that aligned in Indiana were so unique, and it is unlikely the same thing could happen in other states — at least for now.

Gov. Mitch Daniels‘ signature Wednesday on the bill that made Indiana the nation’s 23rd right-to-work state was the end of a contentious two-year political battle that included partisan bickering, lawmaker walkouts, legislative stall tactics and union protests. In the end, Indiana marked the first win for national right-to-work supporters who tried in vain last year to push the measure despite a Republican sweep of statehouses nationwide in 2010.

It also could stand as their only victory for a while, based on a mix of obstacles that have spurned advocates in other states stretching from New Hampshire to Minnesota. The very factors that made Indiana’s right-to-work campaign uniquely successful — large state House and Senate majorities and Daniels‘ ability to clear one last run for governor in 2008 before mounting a unified push for the measure — also could undermine similar efforts elsewhere.

National Right to Work Committee Vice President Greg Mourad says two major obstacles have blocked his group’s progress: governors who oppose right-to-work and pro-union Republicans in state legislatures. But much of that could change in 2012 depending on how some key state elections pan out.

“The next election should tell us quite a bit,” Mourad said Wednesday afternoon.

In New Hampshire, right-to-work supporters found themselves unable to overturn a veto from Democratic Gov. John Lynch last year. Lynch is not running for re-election in November and the New Hampshire governor’s office has often been traded between Democrats and Republicans in the last few decades.

Likewise in Montana, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is term-limited against seeking re-election in November. His veto threat has stalled efforts there, Mourad said.

However in other Rust Belt states, right-to-work advocates have run up against squeamish Republicans who don’t want to pick fights with private sector unions whose influence has waned with the decline of American manufacturing, but not to a point where they are no longer a clear political threat.

Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who is up for re-election in 2014, has called right-to-work “too divisive” and Michigan’s Republican Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said last week he doubted right-to-work would bring the economic benefits promised by supporters.

Experts say many factors influence states’ economies and that it’s nearly impossible to isolate the impact of right to work. For major industries, access to supplies, infrastructure, key markets and a skilled workforce are key factors, according to business recruitment specialists. For a state’s workers, the impact of right-to-work legislation is limited because only about 7 percent of private sector employees are unionized. Over the years, job growth has surged in states with, and without, right-to-work laws.

“They are often the problem, guys like Randy Richardville, who have been pretty comfortable with unions,” Mourad said. Mourad noted that dealing with pro-labor Republicans can mean either building large pro-right-to-work majorities around them in a chamber or voting them out of office.

Michigan’s larger union presence has also made Republican lawmakers pause more than their Indiana counterparts, who work in a state where union membership dropped by roughly 50 percent in the last decade.

Right-to-work supporters won a decisive victory in Indiana in 2006 after the right-to-work supporter Sen. Greg Walker, a Columbus Republican, unseated Indiana’s long-time Republican Senate Pro Tem Bob Garton, an ardent right-to-work opponent.

But even with the right parts, a right-to-work victory is never guaranteed, said Garton’s successor, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, Republican of Fort Wayne.

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