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 labour 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 ruthless 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 labour 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 labour 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, especially with demonstrators still hoping to dissuade him.
“They can finish up, and they can go home because they know … making more comments on that is not going to change the outcome,” he said. “I view this as simply trying to get this issue behind us.”
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 centre-stage.
“Introducing freedom-to-work in Michigan will contribute to our state’s economic comeback while preserving the roles of unions and collective bargaining,” Snyder said.
Protesters began assembling before daylight outside the sandstone-and-brick Capitol, chanting and whistling in the chilly darkness and waving placards with slogans such as “Stop the War on Workers.” Others joined a three-block march to the building, some wearing coveralls and hard hats.
Valerie Constance, a reading instructor for the Wayne County Community College District and member of the American Federation of Teachers, sat on the Capitol steps with a sign shaped like a tombstone. It read: “Here lies democracy.”
“I do think this is a very sad day in Michigan history,” Constance said.
The crowds filled the rotunda area, beating drums and chanting. The chorus rose to a deafening thunder as House members voted. Later, protesters surged toward a building across the street housing Snyder’s office. Two people were arrested when they tried to get inside, state police said.
By late afternoon, the demonstrators had mostly dispersed.
The governor insisted the matter wasn’t handled with undue haste, calling the debate in the House and Senate a “healthy discussion.”
Michigan gives the right-to-work movement its strongest foothold yet in the Rust Belt, where the 2010 election and tea party movement produced assertive Republican majorities that have dealt unions repeated setbacks.
Opponents said they would press Snyder to use his line-item veto authority to remove a $1 million appropriation from the bills, making them eligible for a statewide referendum. But the House swiftly rejected a Democratic amendment to that effect.
Lawmakers who backed the bills “will be held accountable at the ballot box in 2014,” said state Rep. Tim Greimel, the incoming House Democratic leader.
But Sen. John Proos, a Republican from St. Joseph who voted for both bills, predicted that objections would fade as the shift in policy brings more jobs to Michigan.
“As they say in sports,” he said, “the atmosphere in the locker room gets a lot better when the team’s winning.”