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Indiana’s unions expect to play ‘defense’ during upcoming legislative session

A man with his back to the camera holds a sign reading "Stop the war on workers" in the foreground. The background is mostly taken up by a semi-truck trailer with the Pepsi logo on it.
FILE PHOTO: Justin Hicks
IPB News
A union worker pickets outside a Pepsi bottling facility in Munster as a truck leaves the driveway.

Organized labor has a big wishlist for Indiana's legislative session.

"Collective bargaining, safety on the job site, retirement, health care, those are main [issues] that we focus on," said Shawn Christ, secretary of the Indiana AFL-CIO, a federation of the state’s unions. "There are all sorts of collective bargaining bills that are out there, they just will not be heard."

With Republicans in control of the statehouse, Christ said, unions have to play "defense."

“The most recent victories, I would say that we've had, is that we've not had any legislation passed that's harmed us in the last four sessions,” said Kenneth Edwards, Indiana legislative director for thenation’s biggest rail union, SMART-TD.

For example, Christ said, unions are hoping that lawmakers won't prohibit state agencies, counties and local governmentsfrom having Responsible Bidder Ordinances (RBO) or Project Labor Agreements (PLA).

PLAs set standards for wages and employment terms in taxpayer-funded contracts. In some cases, they can require a company's workers have a union.

RBOs can ensure taxpayer-funded contracts go to companies that prove that they participate in apprenticeship programs, have plans to hire and keep enough workers for the job, among other requirements.

Proponents like Christ argue such rules ensure employees are taken care of, bolster local economies and protect governments against a project falling apart.

Opponents of these requirements, like the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, say they stifle competition for government contracts. Republican lawmakers have introduced versions of a bill to prohibit RBOs and PLAs four timessince 2019. None have made it past committees yet.

"We definitely don't want the anti-RBO language to come back in there," Christ said.

The Indiana AFL-CIO would ideally like to repeal Indiana's 2012 "right-to-work" law, he said. The federation would also like to get the state to cede control of workplace safety enforcement to the federal Occupational Safety And Health Administration, as most other states have.

“To be quite honest, a lot of Democrats carry those bills and all the chairs are Republicans," Christ said. "So a lot of those bills are basically dead on arrival.”

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While he's not giving up on those goals entirely, Christ said he tends to prioritize bills that are more likely to get Republican support. This legislative session, he'd like to focus on opportunities to improve unemployment benefits.

"We try to work with Republicans as much as possible, especially more moderate Republicans in the center," he said. "And that's how we try to accomplish things at AFL-CIO in this in this climate of two super majorities."

Employer groups, like the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, have laid out their own priorities for the 2023 legislative session over the last few weeks. Their chief concern is the lack of education in Indiana's workforce.

Otherwise, the federation will support some of the more industry-specific legislative goals of its member unions. For example, teachers' unions want better pay.

READ MORE: ISTA wants lawmakers to prioritize teacher pay, staffing shortages in legislative session

"After all the crap that they have had to put up with over the past several years," Christ said. "I mean, let's just give them a decent wage."

One of the state's rail unions also has some goals for this legislative session following Congress blocking a rail workers’ strike earlier this month.

SMART-TD Indiana Legislative Director Kenneth Edwards said he can't comment on that situation. He's more focused on what they can do at the Statehouse.

"This session, the most possible thing is to utilize the federal infrastructure funds that are just now getting out in transportation to the state of Indiana," Edwards said. "We want to improve the passenger [rail] service, most notably reinstate daily service from Indianapolis to Chicago."

That would not only help union workers get more jobs, he said, it would also benefit local economies and provide a more reliable, safer alternative to cars.

"We are looking to get an alliance together with legislators from both sides of the aisle," Edwards said, noting he expects some staunch opposition.

There are also several safety issues he's hoping to get legislators to address, like shortening the amount of time a train can take to cross roadways, requiring defibrillators in each engine and risky rail yard conditions.

"The railroads tend to leave their trash behind," Edwards said. "Then our people have to walk around it or over it. And sometimes at night, you may not see it. So slips, trips and falls are always an issue."

He wants lawmakers to require more "walking stone" paths to reduce that risk.

Contact reporter Adam at or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.

Adam is Indiana Public Broadcasting's labor and employment reporter. He was born and raised in southeast Michigan, where he got his first job as a sandwich artist at Subway in high school. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 2019, he joined Michigan Radio's Stateside show as a production assistant. He then became the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC in Northern Colorado.