Michigan Legislature Approves Right-to-Work Measures Amid Tumult

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder
Rick Snyder, governor of Michigan. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

Michigan lawmakers began approving so-called right-to-work measures after Governor Rick Snyder said for the first time he’d sign the bills, eroding labor’s power in the cradle of the United Auto Workers union.

The Republican majority’s action yesterday prompted demonstrations at the Capitol in Lansing by hundreds of chanting union supporters. Police used pepper spray and arrested eight people, recalling protests over similar measures in Wisconsin and Indiana.

“This is just one shot in a long battle,” said Kristin Dziczek, a labor analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “This will not be a stable situation. This will be just as much a flashpoint.”

If the bills become law, Michigan would be the 24th state to make paying union dues voluntary, rather than a customary requirement in organized workplaces. Indiana did the same in February. The past year has been a time of historic tumult for organized labor, which in 2011 represented 11.8 percent of American workers, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gretchen Whitmer, the Senate Democratic leader from East Lansing, said the bills were meant to crush labor’s power.

“This legislation is petty and vindictive politics at its most disgusting,” she said yesterday on the Senate floor.

The bills cover public and private employees, though police and firefighters would be exempt, the governor told reporters yesterday.

‘Workplace Fairness’

“This is about workplace fairness and equality,” said Snyder, who previously said the issue wasn’t on his agenda. “This is about the relationship between workers and their union. Workers should have a right to choose who they associate with.”

Snyder said only 17.5 percent of Michigan workers are union members, so the measure would affect relatively few people.

Similar measures were considered in 21 states this year, without passage. A right-to-work bill is also being discussed in Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker this year survived a recall after curbing collective bargaining for most public-employee unions.

Even in decline, union money and volunteers were crucial to the re-election of President Barack Obama this year. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an e-mailed statement that the push to open union workplaces is led by “a radical group of Republicans.”

The Michigan House passed one of the three bills as the Senate acted on two.

Democratic Walkout

The House vote was delayed after the Michigan State Police closed the Capitol because of the crush of demonstrators, prompting most Democrats to walk out in protest. They returned about 15 minutes later when the doors were ordered opened.

Both chambers must approve a bill before it’s submitted to the governor. Because of procedural rules, the package can’t be sent to Snyder to be signed into law until at least Dec. 11.

The three U.S. automakers based in Michigan are remaining neutral, according to e-mailed statements from Katie McBride of General Motors Co., Kevin Frazier of Chrysler Group LLC and Todd Nissen of Ford Motor Co.

That neutrality might anger the UAW, considering its advocacy during the U.S. government bailout of the industry in 2009, said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor relations at the University of California, Berkeley. The union, he said, “was essential to the industry’s survival.”

“The pre-eminent U.S. manufacturing industry has just come through the roughest time in its history and is back on its feet,” Shaiken said. “And all of a sudden, one of the partners in this is under attack.”

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