The Michigan Legislature on Wednesday gave final passage to two "right-to-work" bills that could diminish labor power in a state once dominated by autoworker unions. Although political maneuvering continues, the bills are likely to be delivered to Gov. Rick Snyder as soon as Wednesday. He has pledged to sign them.
The first bill, which covered public-sector employees, passed the House 58-51, and was followed by a bill covering private-sector employees, including the United Auto Workers, which passed 58-52. Both were already passed by the Senate last week.
After the bills passed, state police in riot gear moved into the George W. Romney building, where they arrested two protesters and threatened to use pepper spray on others. An estimated 12,000 or so protesters converged on Lansing ahead of the vote, and a limited number were also allowed into the Capitol, where they booed the Legislature as it voted.
The issue inspired impassioned floor debate, as Democrats accused Republicans of taking away freedom, while Republicans such as Rep. Lisa Lyons said the state was "witnessing history in the making."
“This is the day that Michigan freed its workers,” she said.
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Michigan is the second state this year to become a right-to-work state. Indiana passed similar legislation in February. Before this year, 22 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, had right-to-work laws in place, which prohibit unions from collecting dues as a condition of employment.
The actions in Michigan could be considered a last gasp of the conservative movement voted into statehouses across the nation in 2010. States including Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin have also faced battles over labor laws as Republican governors and statehouses go up against unions and their supporters.
Michigan conservatives would not have had enough votes to pass the bills had they waited until the new legislative session in 2013, said Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations.
But Republicans were emboldened when Michigan voters struck down a proposed referendum to enshrine collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution. They decided to take advantage of their majority to pass this legislation, which Snyder says will create jobs.
“There’s retribution on many levels here,” Zullo said. "But it’s not just proving a political point, it’s also a way to defund a major group and institution that supports the Democratic Party."
But even if Snyder signs the bills Wednesday, the state may not see any changes to its unions for some time. In Indiana, the majority of union members decided to continue to pay dues when their contracts were renegotiated, said Jim Robinson, district director for the United Steelworkers.
In negotiations with U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal, none of the 12,000 or so members decided to stop paying dues, he said. The union has lost less than 1% of its total membership in Indiana since the right-to-work bill passed, he said.
The United Autoworkers lost two members out of 450 whose contracts were renegotiated in Indiana, according to Cindy Estrada, a vice president at the UAW. Even in right-to-work states such as Texas, many autoworkers choose to pay union dues because they recognize the benefits of a union, she said.
Still, conservatives will call this a victory, especially since Michigan is considered a “blue” state; voters backed President Obama over native son Mitt Romney, 55% to 43%, in last month's election.
“This is a great day for Michigan’s workers and taxpayers,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, in a statement. “Voluntarism and free association are quintessential American ideals and we applaud Michigan’s efforts to embrace worker freedom and individual choice in regards to union affiliation.”
Labor has pledged to reverse the Legislature's action. By gathering signatures equivalent to 8% of the number of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election, they may be able to put an initiative on the ballot in 2014, the year Snyder is up for reelection.
In Ohio, a law passed by a Republican governor to limit collective bargaining rights was overturned in a referendum in November 2011. The union pushback against the bill helped contribute to a furor that may have helped Obama win Ohio in November.
The uncertainty over whether or not the right-to-work laws will stand likely means business aren’t going to rush into Michigan to take advantage of its weakened union laws.
"We are not a reliably right-to-work state for awhile,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor in industry group for the Center for Automotive Research. “We’ll be in a period of purgatory.... There will be a long struggle with the UAW and the other unions focusing their attention on overturning this.”
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