Verne Strickland Blogmaster / December 7, 2012
The House and Senate each passed bills on the same day they were introduced that give private and public sector workers the right to avoid paying union dues in an organized workplace. Only police officers and firefighters would be exempt.
The package can't reach final completion until at least Tuesday because of procedural rules that require a five-day layover for two of the bills before they can be voted on in the other chamber.
That gives opponents more time to lobby against the legislation, like they did Thursday starting in the early morning when word spread the bills would be introduced, to late evening when the Senate finally adjourned.
The historic legislation passed over the thunderous chanting from thousands of workers who descended on the Capitol, resulting in at least eight arrests and a temporary lockdown of the building by Michigan State Police. Democrats in both chambers staged walkouts and procedural maneuvers to stall passage while workers protested in and outside the Capitol.
"Young people don't know the history of labor relations," said Diane Petryk, a union member from Lansing. "They have an eight-hour day, a weekend, vacation and more because of labor unions.
"Their grandparents died on the picket lines in Flint, Detroit and other places so that we could have a middle class."
The Legislature's votes make Michigan the latest focal point in a national debate over unions — pitting Republicans against Democrats, workers against employers and business interests against many in the middle class who believe right to work will roll back gains made over decades in wages, benefits and working conditions.
Six Republicans in the House and four in the Senate voted against the bills.
Thursday's actions also come a month after voters defeated a statewide referendum that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, denied the November vote was a mandate for right to work.
Conservatives lauded the move.
Glenn Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Workforce Freedom Initiative, in a press release, said: "Workers in Michigan should not have to choose between financially supporting a union or losing their jobs."
Michigan Chamber President and CEO Rich Studley issued a statement saying: "Passage of this legislation will help create and retain jobs and improve our state's economic competitiveness."
But it was condemned by supporters of union rights, including Whitmer. She pledged to obstruct what she called an "abomination" and "cowardly act" by Republicans, vowing to use every parliamentary tool available to bottleneck the legislation.
In the Senate, Democrats attached numerous amendments to the bill, hoping to stall its progress. Each — including one to rename the bill the Randy Richardville Right to Work Act, after the Senate majority leader — was defeated.
President Barack Obama reiterated his opposition to right-to-work legislation, saying he believes the economy is "stronger when workers get good wages and good benefits," and he opposes attempts to roll back their rights.
White House spokesman Keith Maley said Michigan workers' role in helping revive the U.S. auto industry shows "how unions have helped build a strong middle class and a strong American economy."
'About breaking unions'"This bill is not about giving people choice. This bill is about breaking unions," said Rep. Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette. "When we do, the people in this state and in my district are going to be so much poorer."
About 2,000 labor supporters had gathered at the Capitol by midafternoon.
They took over the Capitol steps and tore down a banner of Michigan Freedom Fund, a group that aired statewide radio and TV ads this week seeking passage of the bill.
"The working families are not going to lie down and watch their state go in a negative direction," said UAW President Bob King outside the Capitol. "Every right-to-work state in America has lower wages, lower benefits, greater income inequality, more discrimination, less equality in the workplace. Right to work is wrong for Michigan."
At one point, there were so many protesters that Michigan State Police ordered the Capitol closed and no one was allowed to enter or leave either chamber.
Democrats sought a court order to reopen the doors, and eventually a judge agreed. That created a minor problem in the House, where Democratic members went outside to welcome in protesters, but found themselves locked out of the House chamber.
"I came out to escort the citizens back into their house … and I was denied re-entry," said state Rep. Vicki Barnett, D-Farmington Hills. She got back in after calling a staff member.
Democrats were upset about how quickly the Republican leadership moved the bills. There were no committee hearings and the bills were instead moved directly to the floor for votes.
"This is not right," said House Democratic Floor Leader Kate Segal, D-Battle Creek.
In a meeting with reporters, House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, downplayed questions about the lack of a public hearing on the legislation.
"This issue has been discussed in this session for almost two years now, and it's been discussed in Michigan for decades," he said.
Snyder added: "This topic has been out there for a significant amount of time."
House Republicans have a 64-46 majority and need 56 votes to pass the bills. In January, when the new legislative session begins, the GOP majority will be reduced to 59-51 following the results of the November election.
"You're doing this in lame duck because you know next session you won't have the votes," said Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids.
A few Republican representatives stood on the House floor and defended the legislation as giving workers a choice about financially backing a labor union.
"Unions will have the same rights as before, but now workers will have them too," said state Rep. Greg MacMaster, R-Kewadin.
In arguing against the concept of a right-to-work law, Democrats and labor union members compared forcing nonunion workers to pay unions agency fees for collective bargaining benefits to different forms of collective membership.
Rep. Tim Bledsoe, D-Grosse Pointe, said during floor debate that there are "compulsory" fees levied on cattle producers and dairy farmers to generate revenue to market their products.
"Let's keep these arguments for economic freedom in perspective," he said. "Compulsory workplace fees are not all that uncommon."
'Freedom to choose'Snyder said Thursday morning at a packed news conference at his office in the Romney building across from the Capitol that he wanted the Legislature to act quickly on the bills and that he would sign them.
The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn by Dec. 20, but Republicans were hoping to leave town as early as Dec. 13.
Snyder has long said right-to-work legislation hasn't been on his agenda, but he changed his view because of Indiana's February passage of a right-to-work law and increased political pressure to pass the bill in the Legislature's lame-duck session.
"Workers should have freedom to choose who they associate with," Snyder said.
The law would apply broadly to the 17.5 percent of Michigan's workforce that works in unionized workplaces, but contains an exemption for firefighters and police officers, Snyder said, to be consistent with state law for binding arbitration.
Bolger said the legislation would include an appropriation of state money to pay for implementation. Attaching an appropriation to legislation is a legislative mechanism to prevent voter-initiated repeals of legislation.
The Legislature will not put the law into effect immediately, so it wouldn't take effect until April 1, Richardville said.
Detroit News Staff Writers David Shepardson and Tony Briscoe contributed.