LANSING, Mich. – Over the chants of thousands of angry protesters, Republican lawmakers made Michigan a right-to-work state Tuesday, dealing a devastating and once-unthinkable defeat to organized labor in a place that has been a bastion of the movement for generations.
The GOP-dominated House ignored Democrats’ pleas to delay the final passage and instead approved two bills with the same efficiency that the Senate showed last week. One measure dealt with private-sector workers, the other with government employees. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed them both within hours, calling them “pro-worker and pro-Michigan.”
“This is about freedom, fairness and equality,” House Speaker Jase Bolger said during the floor debate. “These are basic American rights – rights that should unite us.”
After the vote, he said, Michigan’s future “has never been brighter, because workers are free.”
The state where the United Auto Workers was founded and labor has long been a political titan will join 23 others with right-to-work laws, which ban requirements that nonunion employees pay unions for negotiating contracts and other services.
Supporters say the laws give workers more choice and support economic growth, but critics insist the real intent is to weaken organized labor by encouraging workers to “freeload” by withholding money unions need to bargain effectively.
Protesters in the Capitol gallery chanted “Shame on you!” as the measures were adopted. Union backers clogged the hallways and grounds shouting “No justice, no peace.” And Democrats warned that hard feelings over the legislation and Republicans’ refusal to hold committee hearings or allow a statewide referendum would be long lasting.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and other Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation met with Snyder on Monday and urged him to slow things down.
“For millions of Michigan workers, this is no ordinary debate,” Levin said after the House vote. “It’s an assault on their right to have their elected bargaining agent negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions, and to have all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them.”
The crowds were considerably smaller than those drawn by right-to-work legislation in Indiana earlier this year and in Wisconsin in 2011 during consideration of a law curtailing collective bargaining rights for most state employees. Those measures provoked weeks of intense debate, with Democrats boycotting sessions to delay action and tens of thousands of activists occupying statehouses.
In Michigan, Republicans acted so quickly that opponents had little time to plan massive resistance.
Snyder and GOP leaders announced their intentions last Thursday. Within hours, the bills were hurriedly pushed through the Senate as powerless Democrats objected. After a legally required five-day waiting period, the House approved final passage.
The governor said he saw no reason not to sign the bills immediately.
“I view this as simply trying to get this issue behind us,” he said.
Snyder said he expects the law to be challenged in court but believes it will stand. He said unions were largely responsible for its divisiveness, having ignored his advice and pushed an unsuccessful November ballot initiative seeking to make right-to-work laws unconstitutional. The bitter campaign over the ballot measure put the issue on center stage.