LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Police used chemical spray Thursday to subdue protesters trying to rush the Michigan Senate chamber after Gov. Rick Snyder and other Republican leaders announced they would press for quick approval of right-to-work legislation limiting union powers.
Eight people were arrested for resisting and obstructing when they tried to push past two troopers guarding the Senate door, state police Inspector Gene Adamczyk said. The Capitol was temporarily closed because of safety concerns.
So-called right-to-work measures generally prohibit requiring unions from collecting fees from nonunion employees, which opponents say drains unions of money and weakens their ability to bargain for good wages and benefits. Supporters insist it would boost the economy and job creation.
Should it become law in Michigan, it would give the right-to-work movement its strongest foothold yet in the Rust Belt region, where organized labor already has suffered several body blows.
Chanting, whistling activists flooded the building and grounds as Snyder and his allies sought quick votes on measures that would prohibit unions from collecting fees from workers who decline union representation. Opponents say right-to-work laws drain unions of money and weaken their ability to bargain for good wages and benefits. Supporters insist the policy is good for the economy and job creation.
The bills were brought to the floors of both chambers for debate Thursday afternoon.
“This is all about taking care of the hard-working workers in Michigan, being pro-worker and giving them freedom to make choices,” Snyder said during a news conference with House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Minority Leader Randy Richardville.
“The goal isn’t to divide Michigan, it is to bring Michigan together,” Snyder said.
But the decision to push forward in the waning days of the Legislature’s lame-duck session infuriated outnumbered Democrats, who resorted to parliamentary maneuvers to slow action but were powerless to block the bills that were expected to be introduced Thursday.
Protesters waved placards and chanted slogans such as “Union buster” and “Right-to-work has got to go.” Adamczyk said the troopers used chemical spray after the people refused to obey orders to stop.
He estimated that about 2,500 visitors were inside the Capitol, where their shouts reverberated off stone halls and frequently could be heard inside the ornate chambers.
After repeatedly insisting during his first two years in office that right-to-work was not on his agenda, Snyder reversed course Thursday, a month after voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have barred such measures under the state constitution.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Snyder said he had kept the issue at arm’s length while pursuing other programs to bolster the state economy. But he said circumstances had pushed the matter to the forefront.
“It is a divisive issue,” he acknowledged. “But it was already being divisive over the past few weeks, so let’s get this resolved. Let’s reach a conclusion that’s in the best interests of all.”
Also influencing his decision, he said, were reports that some 90 companies had decided to locate in Indiana since that state adopted right-to-work legislation. “That’s thousands of jobs, and we want to have that kind of success in Michigan,” he said.
Snyder and the GOP leaders insisted the legislation was not meant to weaken unions or collective bargaining, saying it would make unions more responsive to their members.
Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer said she was “livid.”
“These guys have lied to us all along the way,” she said. “They are pushing through the most divisive legislation they could come up with and the dark of night, at the end of a lame-duck session and then they’re going to hightail it out of town. It’s cowardly.”