Labor says RTW impact too soon to gauge

2012-02-01T18:00:00Z 2012-02-22T15:16:04Z Labor says RTW impact too soon to gaugeBy Bowdeya Tweh bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

Opinions vary among labor leaders and attorneys on the impact a right-to-work law will have on Northwest Indiana unions.

Even with the new rules, a few are convinced people will continue paying dues because they see the value in it and unions will remain active parts of Hoosier workplaces.

Following Gov. Mitch Daniels' signature of the legislation Wednesday, Indiana is the nation's 23rd right-to-work state. After March 14, workers cannot be required to pay dues or other fees to a labor union as a condition of employment. The law does not apply to labor agreements formed, modified or renewed before that date.

"It's going to be a wait-and-see, (but) I don't think it's going to be a disaster," said Tom Hargrove, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1010 in East Chicago.

Hargrove, whose local represents more than 3,500 workers, most of whom work on the east side of ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor, said union members understand steel mills can be dangerous places and were formed to assist the company in keeping workers safe. He said he's confident workers will "do the right thing" and pay dues to continue union services.

Each union may have a different procedure to handle workers who want to withdraw from the union or stop paying dues, said Todd Nierman, an Indianapolis labor attorney for Littler Mendelson PC. Nierman speculated there could be a lot of peer pressure on employees to pay dues even though nondues-paying members could receive all benefits negotiated under new collective bargaining agreements.

"It's like me stating I don't want to pay taxes that go to the military," Chicago labor attorney Paul Berkowitz said. "Do I give up the protection by the military? Obviously not. It's just a terrible, terrible thing."

For many labor organizations, dues are critical to operations since they can be used to pay for administrative or officials' salaries, for office or rental space, and for attorneys to handle workplace matters.

Having right-to-work on the books is going to encourage union leaders to have more direct communications with members, said Randy Palmateer, business manager of the Munster-based Northwestern Indiana Building & Construction Trades Council. He said he doubts a majority of union members will opt out of paying dues, but it may happen more frequently in areas of southern Indiana, where the union concentration isn't as high.

While the percentage of Indiana workers who said they were union members rose in 2011 to 11.3 percent from 10.9 percent in 2010, the number of people covered by a union contract in the state increased as well.

James Sanderson, president of United Steelworkers Local 7898 in Georgetown, S.C., said his state has been right-to-work since the 1950s, but today 250 of 251 workers represented pay dues. He said the company deducts dues from employees' paychecks. Dues then are transmitted to the national union in Pittsburgh before being sent to the union hall.

He said legislators in his state and Indiana should be focused on workers having "a right to life," meaning they should be able to refuse a job if it is unsafe without fear of termination.

"How many workers truly, if you don't have a union to represent you, really would tell the foreman they aren't going to do a job because it's unsafe?" asked Sanderson, who represents workers at an ArcelorMittal wire rod mill. "They will perform an unsafe act for the fear of being fired. That's sad. And to me there's much more important issues in this country (than) right-to-work."

The Indiana Department of Labor will promulgate rules within the next six months pertaining to right-to-work, said agency spokesman Robert Dittmer. However, he said if a situation required rules to be developed on an emergency basis, the Department of Labor has the ability to do so.

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