By Susan Guyett
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Indiana begins what is expected to be a raucous debate on Wednesday as a bill is introduced in the state legislature that could make it the first "right-to-work" state in the nation's traditional manufacturing belt.
The legislation is expected to pass the Republican-majority Indiana assembly with the support of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who said it is "all about new job opportunities."
But Democrats and labor unions are promising a fight, which could include protests at the state Capitol like those seen in Ohio and Wisconsin last year during battles over collective bargaining rights for public workers.
Under the proposed Indiana law, employees at unionized private workplaces would not have to pay union dues. Such statutes are enforced in 22 states, mostly in the south and west.
If the bill passes, Indiana would become the first right-to-work state in the area considered the country's traditional manufacturing belt. The manufacturing belt of the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states is now sometimes dubbed the rust belt because of the large number of plant closures.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Indiana State Rep. Jerry Torr, has been introducing similar legislation since 2004. He said the bill is about "fairness and freedom" for individual employees to decide whether they want to associate with a union.
Daniels has made passing the bill a top priority this year, something he did not do in the last session.
Opponents said the bill's goal is "union busting" and diminishing the coffers of unions who support political activism, according to State Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat and ranking minority member on the senate's pension and labor committee. Democrats get a significant portion of their donations from labor unions.
"I'm not going to support any bill whose main purpose is to silence dissent," said Tallian.
Indiana House Democrats fled to Illinois for five weeks last year to avoid voting on a similar right-to-work bill and other legislation they viewed as anti-labor and anti-public education. The bill died, and other bills were altered.
Daniels said he does not believe the bill will impact the right to organize. He said too many businesses have looked at Indiana and walked away because it is not a right-to-work state, and that such states have faster job and income growth and lower unemployment rates. Indiana has a 9 percent unemployment rate -- higher than the federal unemployment rate of 8.6 percent.
Democrats argue that such laws lead to lower wages for all. In an article circulated by Democratic lawmakers, University of Notre Dame professors Barbara Fick and Marty Wolfson argue that trying to attract businesses to a state based on low wages undermines living standards for most workers.
"Most people would agree that lowering wages and benefits for Indiana workers is not the best way to support economic development in Indiana," Fick and Wolfson wrote. Fick, who teaches law, and Wolfson, who teaches economics, are both affiliated with the Higgins Labor Studies Program at Notre Dame.
The bill is expected to be before the House and Senate labor committees Friday.
On Wednesday, Gov. Daniels announced that he had rescinded a new security policy which would have limited public access to the state house. The rules would have limited the number of people in the Capitol building to 3,000, and were viewed by some as an attempt to prevent large protests against the proposed right-to-work law.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Reporting by Susan Guyett in Indianapolis, Editing by Greg McCune)