Outside the doors to the almost-empty Indiana House of Representatives chambers, a crowd swelled.
All of the pro-union protesters had been directed to wait outside of the House chambers for a press conference late Wednesday afternoon. They were prohibited from entering the chambers, but they could watch through the windows, and speakers had been turned on in the hallway so everyone could hear.
They waited mostly in silence, and people started shushing anytime the group got too loud. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma was slated to make a short statement and answer questions.
“Let him have his moment to talk,” one man instructed the crowd.
As Bosma spoke, he reiterated that no legislative business could take place until House Democrats returned from fueling the Illinois economy by taking sanctuary in the Comfort Suites hotel in Urbana.
“We will make no concessions,” Bosma said, tacking on a demand to his Democratic counterparts: “Come back to work.”
The crowd erupted instantly in noise. Booing drowned out screams of “You piece of shit!”
But slowly, they rallied around one chant: “Hear our voices.”
Though the press conference continued, it was impossible to tell from the outside. The screaming was insistent. Five minutes passed, and the volume only increased.
Republican representatives inside darted anxious looks at the crowd, which appeared to be right up against the glass despite a state trooper-imposed three-foot barrier.
They may as well have been inside — Bosma kept having to ask reporters to speak up or repeat their questions over the roar.
Wednesday was the third-straight day of protests at the Statehouse. The debate centered around House Bill 1468, which would prohibit employers from requiring their employees to join unions as a condition of employment.
House Democrats fled the Statehouse on Monday because of this and 10 other bills they felt were doomed to pass in the Republican-controlled legislature, including pro-school voucher and charter school legislation. They hid in Illinois to avoid extradition back to the capital by state police.
Since then, Gov. Mitch Daniels has pledged to drop debate on the right-to-work bill, but Democratic leaders said they’ll stay out of the state until the rest of the bills are dropped, too.
Indianapolis is one of several state capitals, including Madison, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio, that has been flooded with union protesters because of similar bills.
“People were well-aware this would happen,” said Nancy Guyott, president of Indiana’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. “I couldn’t have held it back even if I wanted to.”
She said she intended to stay at the Statehouse as long as she needed to.
Several union members, including Jeff Barton of the Lafayette United Steelworkers chapter, said they knew immediately to come to the Statehouse to begin protests once the bills were up for debate.
“If I’d had to take vacation days, I would do it.” Barton said. “They need to leave us alone, period. This is our future we’re fighting for.”
On the other side of the rotunda, the crowd’s noise was muffled by the whir of turning gears. It was the Engineering/Technology Educators of Indiana’s yearly Rotunda Day, and groups of middle and high-school students from across the state had assembled at the Statehouse too.
From balconies on the second and third floors, protesters in hard hats and tan canvas jackets watched a robot designed by a team from Huntington, Ind., spit a soccer ball back at one of its creators, high-school senior Grace Fowler. She said union workers had been visiting her stand all day.
“They understand what we’re doing, like the electrical stuff, and they’re really interested,” she said. “The legislators who come by usually just ask questions about education.”
While taking a break in their all-day presentation, students wandered to the other side of the Statehouse to listen to longtime union members declaring their intent to stay as long as it took in between singing “This Land Is Your Land” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
State troopers were on hand to keep the noisy but peaceful crowd under control. Most of the troopers stayed near the entrance to the House Chambers, where only a few Republican members were in their assigned seats for the scheduled session. Since they were unable to debate legislation without a quorum present, they checked e-mail and stole peeks at Facebook pages.
When the conference started, they filed to the front of the chambers and stood silently behind the podium while Bosma spoke. After it ended, any remaining representatives snuck out a back exit to avoid the angry crowd.
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