Michigan governor signs 'right-to-work' bills
More than 12,000 protest in Lansing
Photo credit: Ryan Felton/Crain's Detroit Business
LANSING, Mich. -- Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, without ceremony, signed two so-called right-to-work measures that ban mandatory union dues in Michigan workplaces, making the state and union bastion the 24th state to enact such legislation, and the second this year after Indiana.
The law is a practical and symbolic rout in a stronghold of organized labor in the United States, and opponents said it presaged political warfare.
"This is a major day in Michigan's history," Snyder said at a briefing after signing the bills. "I don't view this as anti-union at all. I view this as an opportunity to stand up for Michigan's workers, to be pro-worker."
The laws will take effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session, which means they will probably come into force sometime in April. Existing union contracts will not be changed until they expire, according to a provision of the laws.
In a rapid turn of events, Michigan moved from being a bastion of union influence to joining states, mostly in the South, that have weakened local protections for unions.
The dues issue came to a head after unions spent $23 million in an unsuccessful campaign to enshrine collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution with a ballot measure in November.
Snyder had asked union leaders not to seek the constitutional amendment, and he campaigned against it, saying it would undo efforts to rein in employee costs.
“Unions will be more responsive and more jobs will come to Michigan,” Snyder said at the briefing. “I try to do what’s best for the citizens of Michigan.”
The events in Michigan, with a history of combative organizing and powerful ties to the UAW and International Brotherhood of Teamsters, are watched by unions as a possible harbinger of similar campaigns in other states.
Opponents say the laws are an attempt to strip unions of money used not only to bargain with management but to support political campaigns.
Michigan lawmakers earlier approved bills to prohibit mandatory union dues in workplaces as thousands of chanting protesters thronged the Capitol of the state that is home to the UAW.
The Teamsters union national president, James Hoffa, whose father, Jimmy Hoffa, was one of the nation's most famous labor leaders until he disappeared in 1975 in Michigan, denounced Republican leaders in a speech to protesters.
"Let me tell the governor and all those elected officials who vote for this shameful, divisive bill - there will be repercussions," Hoffa said, adding the Republicans could be defeated in the next election.
"There will be blood," state Rep. Douglas Geiss, a Democrat from Taylor, said in debate.
More than 12,000 workers from throughout Michigan and the Midwest crowded into the state Capitol and marched outside in freezing temperatures as the Legislature began debating the legislation.
Michigan State Police Inspector Gene Adamczyk said the Capitol building was closed to visitors when it reached capacity of 2,200.
Supporters of the right-to-work legislation also were inside the Capitol and on the grounds nearby, although they were heavily outnumbered by opponents. Security was tight with police dressed in riot gear, carrying long batons and with spray canisters on their belts.
Outside, where a nearby bank sign showed the temperature at 25 degrees and light snow fell, four inflatable rats dubbed the "Rat Pack" depicted Snyder and the party leaders who have led the right-to-work effort.
A man dressed as Santa Claus stood on the Capitol steps holding a sign saying that Republicans had stolen Christmas.
The show of force by unionized workers recalled huge rallies in Wisconsin two years ago when Republicans voted to curb public sector unions.
Several school districts in Michigan were closed as teachers went to Lansing to join the rallies.
Jen Penz, a union steward for teacher aides at Warren Consolidated Schools, said 260 teachers called in sick there, forcing schools to close in the district near Detroit.
"We're not abandoning our students. We're here to protect their future," Penz said. "We're setting a good example for them."
Ann Patnaude, deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity and a supporter of right-to-work, said many people are confused about the issue.
"The unions are still going to be around," she said. "There's still going to be collective bargaining. This is about freedom, the right to choose."
The right-to-work movement has been growing in the United States in recent years. Indiana earlier this year became the first state in the industrial Midwest to approve right-to-work and several other states are watching the Michigan action closely.
Passage of the legislation would be a stunning blow to the power of organized labor in the United States, which has suffered a series of setbacks in recent years.
Wisconsin Republicans in 2011 passed laws severely restricting the power of public sector unions. While Wisconsin did not even attempt to pass right-to-work, the success of Republicans there in curbing powerful unions such as teachers and state workers emboldened politicians in other states to follow suit.
Michigan is home of the heavily unionized U.S. auto industry, with some 700 manufacturing plants in the state. It is also the birthplace of the UAW, the richest U.S. labor union. Michigan has the fifth highest percentage of unionized workers in the United States at 17.5 percent.
While new Michigan laws would not be expected to have much immediate impact because existing union contracts would be preserved, they could eventually weaken the UAW, which has already seen its influence wane in negotiating with the major automakers.
Right-to-work laws typically allow workers to hold a job without being forced to join a union or pay union dues.
President Barack Obama waded into the debate during a visit to the Daimler Detroit Diesel plant in Redford, Michigan, on Monday, criticizing the Republican right-to-work effort.
"What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money," Obama said.
Labor leaders such as UAW President Bob King say they were blindsided by Snyder, who last Thursday announced he was supporting right-to-work after nearly two years of saying the issue was too divisive.
King was unsuccessful in more than a week of talks with Snyder and his staff in staving off the right-to-work push by the Republicans, who will lose several seats when newly elected members take their seats in the Michigan House and Senate in January.
Reuters and Bloomberg contributed.Contact Automotive News