Union members Brian Brissette, left, Tom Gazley and Eric Kozlow watch the… (Paul Sancya, Associated…)
NEW YORK — Labor relations in the Midwest reached a new level of acrimony as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder abruptly signed legislation placing limits on unions, setting up a bitter political battle that could resonate nationwide.
It's a stunning development for a blue state that's been known as a place friendly to labor, where autoworkers and their families from Detroit to Saginaw have benefited from generous union contracts.
An estimated 15,000 workers descended on the state Capitol in Lansing on Tuesday to protest against the bills, scuffling at times with police and conservatives who also set up shop at the Capitol.
House members passed two bills that would make Michigan a "right to work" state, essentially prohibiting union security agreements, which make union membership or fees a condition of employment. The bills, which covered private sector and public sector employees, had passed the state Senate last week.
Snyder, a Republican, signed both bills in private Tuesday afternoon, hailing the legislation as a victory for Michigan workers and a way to bring more jobs to the state.
"This is a major day in Michigan's history," he said at a news conference. "This is an opportunity for unions to step up and say how they can provide the best value to workers in our state."
The legislation comes as workplace tensions grow across the country.
While employees making low wages at companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and McDonald's Corp. are protesting to demand higher wages, businesses are increasing the number of lockouts they impose on workers. And in the last two years, union supporters have converged on state capitols in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio to oppose bills that restricted their power.
Now organized labor from around the country is watching what happens in Michigan, where labor groups have vowed to overturn the law and vote Snyder out of office by 2014. If Michigan, which voted for President Obama over native son Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points, becomes a right-to-work state permanently, others could follow suit.
"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, could mean a lot."
The bills came as a surprise to many in labor, especially after recent victories at the ballot box. Gov. Snyder had initially said he was not interested in pursuing right-to-work laws, because they affected a relatively small number of Michiganders.
But he said that Proposal 2, a labor-backed referendum on the November ballot, "triggered the dialogue" about labor issues and led him to ultimately support anti-union legislation. The proposal would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state's constitution, but it was rejected by voters by a large margin.
"I asked labor leaders not to move forward with the ballot proposal because I knew it could trigger a discussion that could lead to right-to-work being a divisive issue," Snyder said. "Unfortunately, they moved forward, it became divisive, and it was time to step up and take a leadership position."
It's unlikely that the Legislature would have had enough votes to pass the bills in January, when the Legislature will still be in Republican control but more moderate, said Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations. The legislative approval, and Snyder's backing, signal that the partisan discord paralyzing the federal government is present on a local level too.
"There's retribution on many levels here," Zullo said. "It would have been easy for the current political party to walk away and say it is done, but instead, during this lame duck session when they feel they have the votes, they're pushing through a right-to-work law, allowing no debates."
Even before the legislation passed Tuesday, labor leaders were brainstorming ways to reverse the bills. The right-to-work legislation is attached to appropriations bills, so it can't simply be reversed in a referendum. But it could be reversed in a citizen's initiative in 2014, the same year Snyder would be running for reelection.
"While it was disappointing that Snyder rammed this divisive 'tea party' legislation through we are considering all options that are on the table," said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for the labor-funded Workers' Voice. "Whether it is the available ballot initiative option, or Snyder's reelection itself, he will strongly hear the voices of Michiganders in 2014."
Unions have had mixed results overturning the slate of anti-labor laws that have been passed in the last two years. In Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill limiting collective bargaining for public sector employees, the law is still being challenged in various courts. An effort to recall Walker failed.