Thousands attend union rally at Indiana Statehouse

Labor unions have been inside the Statehouse every day for weeks.

Indianapolis - Thousands of union members are attending a rally at the Indiana Statehouse Thursday. It's one of the biggest protests yet in the fight against legislation they say punishes the working class.

Labor organizers promised 20,000 to 30,000 protesters outside the Statehouse on Thursday afternoon. Police said by 11:00 am, over 5,000 people were estimated at the rally. State police estimated the final number at over 8,000 attendees. Although not as many protesters turned up as expected, it was still one of the largest rallies at the Statehouse over the past ten years.

Several speakers addressed the huge crowd, speaking in front of a banner that said, "Hoosiers standing up for the middle class."

It wasn't just labor legislation that came under fire. Education bills that would allow unlicensed teachers into classrooms and funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools were also the target of criticism.

One of the 37 Democrats who has spent the last three weeks holed up at an Urbana, IL hotel returned to Indianapolis to speak to the crowd Thursday.

Rep. Bill Crawford (D-Indianapolis) said the boycott was to "slow down the process to allow you to sing your song loudly throughout Indiana and you said no! You told us not to come home, and we have not come home. We gave up our pay. We sacrificed like you did. We gave up our pay. We are not costing the taxpayers any money. But we're standing for families, we're standing for the middle class, we're standing for teachers."

The Democrats have taken criticism for the cost of the boycott, however. They were still taking their per diem pay of around $150 as of last week, and it's unclear whether they're accepting their salary, which is typically paid out in two installments during the legislative session. The party has also solicited donations to pay for the hotel bill.

Crawford talked about some of the education bills being proposed by Republicans.

"We do not want non-certified, non-licensed teachers teaching our children. We want our children who are the message we send to a future that we will never see, because we are not immortal, we want that to be a positive message coming from well-trained, highly educated, committed teachers. We don't want business people entering our classrooms without any knowledge of how to organize. We are standing with you to say no."

Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell said the crowd was orderly and cooperative with law enforcement.

Labor unions have been inside the Statehouse every day for weeks. Representatives of the AFL-CIO call this the longest running labor rally in the state's history.

"Today is Day 18 in the largest sustained protest in Indiana's history," said Nancy Guyott, Indiana AFL-CIO.

They chanted and even rapped about labor's plight in Indiana and around the country. Marissa Graham, an elementary teacher from Anderson, told the crowd about her district's contract that was settled last week.

"We settled a contract Tuesday. A contract that almost brings me to tears," Graham said. "We are not greedy teachers or the privileged elite, like some have made us out to be. We just want our voice heard. Collective bargaining is our voice."

The battle is over Republican proposals to drastically change Indiana's prevailing wage, so-called "right to work" and collective bargaining laws.

They are the same issues that caused House Democrats to walk out and bring the legislative process to a standstill.

Union members claim they are under attack and are being held up as scapegoats for country's economic problems.

"Everything that I have I owe to that middle class wage. I pay my taxes every year faithfully. I consider myself to be part of my community, my schools, our churches and my neighborhood. And I don't see how any of these pieces of legislation will benefit anyone," said Paul Rausch, steel worker.

Members insist the issues are bigger than unions and impact all working families, whether they are in the union or not.

"If you have a union presence that helps non-union workers in terms of their wages and benefits. If unions are eliminated from Indiana, I believe we could expect to see everyone's wages, union and non-union alike, go down because there is no counter prevailing point of view of what is a living wage," Rausch said.

The AFL-CIO says it has wide support ranging from religious leaders to environmental groups.

Union workers in Indiana are no doubt keeping Wisconsin's events in mind. Wednesday night, the Republican majority in that state voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers, after Republicans outmaneuvered the chamber's missing Democrats and approved an explosive proposal that has rocked the state and unions nationwide.

Wisconsin's governor has argued that doing so will help create 250,000 new jobs. Critics say there won't be any direct effect to help Wisconsin fix its huge budget deficit.

Because there are no shuttle buses. Workers have to find their own parking and that could mean crowded streets downtown for much of Thursday.

Inside the Statehouse, Senator Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) said the collective bargaining bill in the Senate allows collective bargaining with binding arbitration.

"They are overstating their case and I'm just looking forward to the day when we can get back to business and discuss issues inside the building, where you have to make decisions, pass bills and take votes," Kenley said.

Some of the House Democrats made the trek back to Indianapolis from Urbana, Illinois to take part in the rally including Rep. Bill Crawford.

"I'm going back to Urbana today, as soon as I leave here today and I will be here over the weekend, I believe," said Crawford (D-Indianapolis).