Pam Craft, a fifth grade teacher from the Culver School corporation, listens to activities in the Indiana Senate Tuesday afternoon. Jim Avelis, Herald Bulletin photo
Pam Craft, a fifth grade teacher from the Culver School corporation, listens to activities in the Indiana Senate Tuesday afternoon. Jim Avelis, Herald Bulletin photo
INDIANAPOLIS — Strong words, bold demands and protest songs filled the atriums and halls of the Indiana Statehouse on Tuesday as union members and sympathizers from around the state returned for a second day in a row.

More than 2,200 people had passed through Statehouse security by noon for a midday rally that featured speakers uttering prayers, pleas and threats in an effort to stop — or at least slow down — a series of bills they deem anti-labor.

Among the crowd was Phil Bird, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 841, who traveled from his home in Terre Haute with fellow union member Joe Steppe to take part in his second day of protest: “We’ve been ready for this for a long time,” Bird said.

Not so ready, but more than willing, was 22-year-old Rakiea McCaskill, an apprentice with the International Laborers Union, who said Tuesday’s rally was her first. She said she came to protest the so-called “right to work” legislation, introduced by Republicans, that prompted House Democrats to stage a walkout rather than vote on the bill.

“Why are they are trying to cut me?” McCaskill said, of the bill backers. “Why are they going after the workers?”

For McCaskill, the issue was clear: The “right to work” bill, which would prohibit union membership from being a condition of employment, was an attack on the union that helped her transform her life.

“I used to work at Wendy’s making minimum wage, and now I make $18 an hour,” said McCaskill, who lays asphalt for a living. “That means I can make car payments, house payments, go back to school and take care of my kids. Why do they want to take that away?”

That theme — of protecting unions and the wages they deliver through collective bargaining rights — was repeated again and again by protesters and speakers alike as the day progressed. While drama unfolded in the House chamber as Democrats failed to show, a multitude of placard-carrying, button-wearing, slogan-chanting protesters made their presence known to legislators and media alike.

Jilly Jenks, who traveled from Mishawaka, donned an Easter Bunny costume — complete with pink ears — to make her point. Billing herself as a member of the “Hunters and Gatherers Union, Local 1,” Jenks said of the right-to-work bill: “The Easter Bunny only works one day a year, but even he knows this is a stupid bill.”

As the day progressed, Gov. Mitch Daniels seemed to side with Jenks — or at least on the timing of the bill.

At a hastily called news conference Tuesday afternoon, Daniels said he thought there was a “better time and place” to address the right-to-work issue than in the current legislative session.

Daniels also remarked on the protesters’ presence, saying they had “legitimate” right to be there.

That’s also what one of the biggest backers of the right-to-work bill had to say as he passed nearly unnoticed among protesters on his way into an afternoon session of the House.

“This is America, this is their building, too,” said state Rep. Wes Culver, a Republican from Goshen who was an early sponsor of the bill.

Culver described the protesters as “friendly and courteous.”

That’s what the Indiana State Police were also saying Tuesday afternoon, after ramping up their presence in anticipation of Tuesday’s crowd.

“We haven’t had any problems,” said ISP Sgt. Anthony Emery. “They’re doing everything within the confines of the law, exercising their rights to free speech. Actually, the day has gone very well.”

That’s not how some of the protesters would have described it. While the walkout by House Democrats stopped a vote on the right-to-work bill, the Republican super-majority in the Senate — whose numbers mean they don’t need Democrats to do business — voted to approve a bill that limits the collective bargaining rights of teachers.

It was that bill that brought Susan Poehl to the Statehouse. The Michigan City schoolteacher said Tuesday was the first time she’d been part of a labor protest, but vowed it wouldn’t be her last: “I do believe that one more person might make a difference,” Poehl said. “I used to think that wasn’t true, but I don’t anymore.”
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