By Susan Guyett
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Indiana House Democrats met behind closed doors on Wednesday, delaying the start of the 2012 legislative session and blocking action on controversial right-to-work legislation backed by Republicans.
House Democratic Leader Pat Bauer defended the walkout, saying his members had been forced to boycott the first day of the new session to thwart a Republican effort to quickly ram the anti-union measure through the house.
Only additional hearings on the right-to-work bill, including public meetings around the state, would break the impasse, Bauer said.
A spokesman for House Speaker Brian Bosma, who tried unsuccessfully to bring the house to order on Wednesday, said Republicans eventually adjourned for the day without concluding any business but planned to reconvene on Thursday.
Without the Democrats in attendance, the House does not have the quorum it needs to conduct business.
Under the proposed right-to-work law, employees at unionized private workplaces would not be required to pay union dues. Supporters say the move would attract jobs to Indiana. Critics call it union busting.
Last year, House Democrats fled the state to neighboring Illinois 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.
The absentees were fined and a bill that raised the amount of money that could be collected from absent legislators was enacted.
Should the Democrats return, the numbers are in Republican's favor with a 60-40 majority in the House and a supermajority of 37-13 in the senate.
Bosma said there would be no fines involved with Wednesday's absences but criticized the Democrats for failing to do the jobs they were elected to do.
If the bill passes, Indiana would become the first right-to-work state in an area considered the country's traditional manufacturing belt.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Indiana State Representative Jerry Torr, has been introducing similar legislation since 2004. He said the bill was about "fairness and freedom" for individual employees to decide whether they want to associate with a union.
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 argued 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.
(Editing by James B. Kelleher and Cynthia Johnston)