Controversial "right-to-work" legislation covering public-sector employees passed the Michigan House of Representatives on Tuesday, bringing it one step closer to being signed into law.
The House passed the bill, 58 to 51, as union opponents of the measure booed inside the Capitol and an estimated 12,000 people rallied outside. The state's Senate approved the bill last week.
The House is now scheduled to vote on a right-to-work bill for private-sector employees, which would cover Michigan's auto industry. If that measure passes, Michigan would become the 24th right-to-work state, meaning unions cannot require members to pay dues as a condition of employment.
Michigan is the fourth state in the Midwest to become embroiled in labor controversy since 2010, when a slate of Republican governors were swept into statehouses across the nation. The speed with which the right-to-work measure are being passed worries some labor experts, who say that it was once unimaginable that Michigan, where 17.5% of the workforce is unionized, would become a right-to-work state.
"Michigan could prove defining," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at UC Berkeley. "What happens here, given the role of unions historically in Michigan, and the larger political implications of right-to-work, will mean a lot."
But even as the Rev. Jesse Jackson rallied protesters on the steps of Lansing City Hall, labor leaders were hurriedly seeking ways to reverse the legislation down the road.
Michigan can't go the way of Ohio, where a referendum last year reversed legislation that would have restricted collective bargaining. Michigan's right-to-work legislation is attached to an appropriations bill, meaning it can't be reversed by referendum. Also, it may be too risky to wait and go the way of Wisconsin, where litigation continues after a judge struck down parts of a collective bargaining law.
However, in Michigan, there is an option of a "statutory initiative," which would be permitted if opponents of the bills can collect enough signatures to equal 8% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, union leaders say. A so-called veto referendum could be triggered by collecting signatures equal to 5% of the votes cast.
A statutory initiative would allow voters to cast a ballot on right-to-work legisation in November 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder, who has said he would support the legislation, will be up for reelection.
"There are multiple options for a referendum," a senior labor leader said Tuesday. "All options are on the table. This fight is far from over."
It’s unclear whether unions are promoting a referendum now to warn Snyder of the repercussions that signing the legislation would have.
Democrats including Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. John Dingell met with Snyder on Monday to urge him to veto the legislation. The governor promised to "seriously" consider their concerns, but Democrats remained worried that he would sign the bills.
“The governor has a choice: He can put this on the ballot, and let the voters make the determination, or he can jam it through a lame-duck session,” Dingell said Monday.
Snyder, a businessman before he became governor, was elected in 2010 by a landslide, beating his opponent by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. But only 35.5% of respondents said they thought he was doing an "excellent" or "good" job in a Michigan State University survey this fall, and that figure could fall as the controversy continues.
"I think this will pass, and be signed, and there will be a long struggle with the United Auto Workers and other unions,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research. "They’re going to focus their attentions on overturning this. I don’t think the war has even begun."