LANSING, Mich. – Two laws that would weaken union power in the labour stronghold of Michigan awaited the governor’s expected signature after the Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed them Tuesday, a devastating and once unthinkable defeat for organized labour in a state considered a cradle of the union movement.
The House passed the anti-union bills Tuesday as hundreds of protesters shouted “shame on you” from the gallery and huge crowds of labour backers massed in the state capitol halls and on the grounds. Gov. Rick Snyder says he will sign the laws — one dealing with private sector workers, the other with government employees — as early as Wednesday.
Foes of the laws, including President Barack Obama, are trying to keep the spotlight on this latest battleground in the war over union rights. Democrats offered a series of amendments, one of which would have allowed a statewide referendum. All were swiftly rejected.
“This is the nuclear option,” Democratic Rep. Doug Geiss. “This is the most divisive issue that we have had to deal with. And this will have repercussions. And it will have personal hard feelings after this is all said and done.”
Once the bills are enacted, it will mark another defeat for the labour movement in the industrial Great Lakes region, known as the Rust Belt for its once-booming manufacturing sector. Michigan, the centre of the U.S. auto industry, will become the 24th right-to-work state, banning requirements that nonunion employees pay unions for negotiating contracts and other services.
“This is about freedom, fairness and equality,” Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger said. “These are basic American rights — rights that should unite us.”
In recent years, legislatures in states like Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin have been taken over by an aggressive Republican majority that vowed to curtail union rights. Even with the outcome considered a foregone conclusion, the heated battle showed no sign of cooling as lawmakers prepared to cast final votes.
Hundreds of protesters flooded the state capitol hours before the House and Senate convened, chanting and whistling in the chilly darkness. Others joined a three-block march to the building, some wearing coveralls and hard hats.
Sen. John Proos, a Republican who voted for the right-to-work bills when they cleared the state Senate last week, said opponents had a right to voice their anger but predicted it would fade as the shift in policy brings more jobs to Michigan.
In an interview with WWJ-AM, Snyder said he expects the bills to be on his desk later this week. He said the intention is to give workers a choice, not to target unions.
“This is about being pro-worker,” Snyder said.
In other states, similar battles were drawn-out affairs lasting weeks. But Snyder, a business executive-turned-governor, and the Republican-dominated Legislature used their political muscle to rapidly introduce and force legislation through the House and Senate in a single day last week. Demonstrators and Democrats howled in protest, but to no avail.
On Tuesday, asked about the speed at which the legislation moved forward, Snyder said the issue wasn’t rushed and that the question of whether to make Michigan a right-to-work state has long been discussed.
For all the shouting, the actual benefit or harm of such laws is not clear. Each camp has pointed to studies bolstering their claims, but one labour expert said the conclusions are inconclusive.
“Very little is actually known about the impact of right-to-work laws,” Gary Chaison, a professor of labour relations at Clark University in Massachusetts, said Monday. “There’s a lot of assumptions that they create or destroy jobs, but the correlation is not definite.”
Democrats contend Republicans, who lost five Michigan House seats in the November election, wanted to act before a new legislature takes office next month. In passionate floor speeches last week, they accused the majority of ignoring the message from voters and bowing to right-wing interest groups. But they acknowledged there was little they could do to stop the fast-moving legislation.
Obama highlighted the issue during his visit Monday to an engine plant in Michigan.
“These so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have anything to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics,” Obama told cheering workers. “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”