Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who portrays himself as a pragmatic unifier, plunged Michigan into conflict by signing so-called right-to-work legislation.
Less than a week after Snyder ended his neutrality on the issue, lawmakers yesterday approved two bills that prohibit compulsory union dues for employees in organized workplaces. The governor signed them hours later.
“As a nonpolitician, I don’t respond to political pressure,” Snyder, 54, said at a Lansing news briefing. “I try to do what’s best for the citizens of Michigan.”
His decision to make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state in the U.S. made the self-described nerd and non-ideologue a new nemesis to Democrats and their union allies. Similar fights in Wisconsin and Indiana this year and last brought protesters into the streets, accusing Republicans of trying to gut labor’s power in its Midwestern stronghold.
In Lansing yesterday, protesters thronged the Capitol as lawmakers gave final approval to the measures. Three people were arrested, according to Michigan State Police. Opponents promise that was merely the beginning of the fight to cancel the new laws.
“This governor ran as a moderate and he ain’t acting like one,” said Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, a Democrat who ran against Snyder in 2010.
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.
The AFL-CIO, a federation of labor organizations that include 12 million workers, is considering legal action or pushing a ballot measure on Michigan’s laws, according to a statement.
“Governor Snyder showed his true colors today: He’s a puppet of extreme donors, and he is willing to ignore and lie to his constituents,” President Richard Trumka said in the statement.
Snyder’s move may not be a fatal blow, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, survived a recall attempt after he curbed collective bargaining for public employees, a measure that brought out as many as 100,000 protesters in Madison.
Duffy said a sizable portion of Michigan’s electorate supports right-to-work laws, based on polls. She said the issue may galvanize organized labor around a stronger Democratic candidate in 2014.
“We’re going to do everything we can to win the House in 2014 and stem this tide of anti-middle class legislation,” Representative Tim Greimel, a Democrat from Auburn Hills, said after the final vote.
About 17 percent of Michigan workers belong to unions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In the early 1960s, about 40 percent did.
Patty Kramer, a 54-year-old United Auto Workers member from Grand Rapids, was among the estimated 11,000 protesters at the Capitol yesterday. She said she didn’t vote for Snyder in 2010, and didn’t think he would back a right-to-work law.
“Voters didn’t know what he stood for,” Kramer said. “When you’re silent like that, you’ve got something to hide. Now we know what -- he can be bought out by big money.”
Snyder said unions started the battle when they led an unsuccessful campaign to enshrine collective-bargaining rights in the Michigan constitution. The ballot proposal was defeated Nov. 6, despite a $23 million drive funded mostly by labor.
The new laws include a $1 million appropriation to administer the measures. The inclusion of the money is meant to shield the laws from a referendum to repeal them. Michigan law forbids public votes on appropriations.
Supporters said the laws, which affect all government and private employees in organized workplaces except for police and firefighters, let workers withdraw support from unions they view as ineffective or politically unpalatable.
“This is the day when Michigan freed its workers,” Representative Lisa Posthumus Lyons, an Alto Republican, said yesterday during debate.