Concerns about how Indiana's right-to-work law will apply to new labor agreement provisions has grounded talks between a Merrillville union and a group of local roofing contractors.
However, opinions are split among labor advocates, attorneys, construction managers and trade groups whether the impasse shows the liability the law creates for businesses.
Indiana became the nation's 23rd right-to-work state this year, and the law went into effect March 14. The law allows people to withdraw from the union and receive representation and grievance services without paying fees to the union.
Much ado about nothing
Officials from other companies and local unions did not find "dues checkoff" to be an issue when negotiating new bargaining agreements in the past few months. Dues checkoff is the granting of authorization for employers to deduct fees from a person's paycheck on behalf of the union.
"As long as the person has authorization, check off," said Louis Ketchum, a business agent and vice president of the Operative Plasterers' and Cement Masons' International Association Local 692. "I honestly don't understand the issue. It's beyond me."
Members of the Hammond, Gary and LaPorte divisions of the statewide Local 692 are working under recently ratified agreements with two regional contractors groups. Ketchum said the negotiations were tough, but the discussion never turned personal and that's how the union has maintained a positive relationship with employers.
Chicago labor attorney Don Schwartz, who represented the union in negotiations, said the terms agreed upon were "much more reasonable" than what roofing contractors are proposing. He said the Local 692 contracts have language removing liability from employers if an employee decides to challenge the removal of dues from their paycheck. The union consented to pay an employer's fees for attorneys if dragged into litigation on the issue.
Keith Rose, president and CEO of Goshen-based Rieth-Riley Construction Co., said dues collection was not an issue in negotiations because it works no different than the processing of other fringe benefits.
An attorney's dream
Dewey Pearman, executive director of the Construction Advancement Foundation, said several other Northwest Indiana unions opened up discussions with contractors' groups earlier this year in anticipation of the right-to-work provisions.
Pearman said the parties in negotiations are hitting roadblocks because there hasn't been enough time to fully understand the bill's implications. His group also argued against right-to-work because it creates many pitfalls for employers and gives them exposure to litigation that wasn't previously there.
"This is a bill that's going to make (attorneys) a lot of money," Pearman said.
Nancy Guyott, president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, said proponents of right-to-work designed the legislation to weaken the voice of unions at and away from the bargaining table and at the halls of government.
A change in tactics?
Indianapolis-based attorney Asheesh Agarwal said the language within the right-to-work law has more employers considering making unions responsible for dues collection.
Agarwal also said a union member can resign from the union at any time, but may be limited in when he or she can stop paying dues. The ability to stop paying dues depends on the terms of a dues checkoff agreement and when the revocation window is open.
J.R. Gaylor, president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Indiana, said it's a good thing that the right-to-work law will make unions provide a culture of customer service and be more accountable to their members.
"We think that's good for the individual workers that if the unions are being responsive to their needs as they say they are, then I would think the workers would stay as members," Gaylor said.