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January 5, 2012

KRULL: Birch Bayh reflects on right-to-work

INDIANAPOLIS —  It has been nearly 50 years since Birch Bayh last traveled the route that led to a battle over right-to-work legislation, but he still knows several of the signs along the road.

“I don’t think the issues have changed too much over the years,” the former three-term U.S. senator from Indiana tells me by phone from his home in Maryland.

In 1962, when the Indiana General Assembly repealed a right-to-work law that had been on the books for less than a decade, Bayh, a Democrat, was speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. It was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis — and the year that Bayh, then only 34, ran against Sen. Homer Capehart, the Republican who had served as one of Indiana’s senators for 18 years.

Bayh won.

Bayh remembers that as a heady, but different time.

The issue was the same. Conservatives in the mid-1950s had gotten the state legislature to pass a law that made it illegal for an employer to force an employee to pay dues or fees to a union, even if the employee benefited from the contract the union negotiated. That’s what right-to-work legislation does.

From the late 1950s on, repealing right to work was the Democrats’ top priority.

“It was an assault on the collective bargaining process,” Bayh says. “They wanted to break the unions.”

Then, as now, business interests and many members of the Republican Party saw a right-to-work law as a way to starve the Democratic Party for funds and give the GOP a significant advantage in elections.

“I can understand how they would think that way,” Bayh says, and then puts some steel in his voice. “But I don’t agree with it.”

The issue may have been the same, but tenor of the discussion was different.

For one thing, the battle wasn’t purely a partisan one. Some Republicans lined up with Bayh to vote to repeal right-to-work. Some Democrats voted against him.

“We had some Republicans who wanted to vote with us and we made some changes to make it easier for them,” Bayh recalls, and says that, in at least one case, the state Democratic Party pledged not to use the issue in a future campaign against a Republican who did vote to repeal the right-to-work law.

As for the Democrats who didn’t vote with the rest of the party?

“We’d tell them that we wanted their vote, but if they had to vote against us on principle, there would be no hard feelings,” Bayh says, but acknowledges that the fact that he had the 51 votes he needed to get the repeal out of the House of Representatives made it easier for him to be gracious.

“Frankly, as long as I had those 51 votes, I didn’t care,” he says and laughs.

The other big difference is that the fight didn’t become a winner-take-all death struggle that shut down government.

Bayh describes a time when Democrats and Republicans competed hard during the election season, but then tried to work together after the votes had been counted. He talks about an impasse between the two parties that would force one to leave the state and shut down government for five weeks with mystification.

“I don’t think people like that,” Bayh says. “They have more sense than that — to force an issue that far or to leave the state for that long.”

He blames both parties for the breakdown in government.

“This is what governing is,” Bayh says, his voice rising a bit.

“You get everybody in a room and you keep talking until you work it out. Nobody gets everything or exactly what they want, but you make some compromises and you get something done.”

Bayh pauses. When he speaks again, his voice is softer, but somehow more serious.

“You do that because that’s what the people sent you there to do. That’s what they expect you to do. And that’s why it’s what you should do.”

Birch Bayh pauses. When he speaks again, his voice is softer still.

“That’s the way we used to do it. I hope that’s the way we learn to do it again.”

Amen.

— John Krull is executive editor of The Statehouse File and director of the Pulliam School of Journalism at Franklin College.

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