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Unions vow to fight Michigan right-to-work law

Legislature swiftly approves bill

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2012

LANSING, Mich. — As furious union members vowed to carry their fight into the next election cycle, lawmakers pushed through historic right-to-work legislation Tuesday — making this bastion of industrial labor strength the 24th state and the second in the Rust Belt to adopt right-to-work laws for public- and private-sector unions.

In a private ceremony, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed the bills covering private- and public-sector workers just hours after the state Legislature acted. The right-to-work measure forbids unions from requiring workers at organized worksites to join or pay dues. Both sides say the change undercuts a key source of labor power and bargaining leverage.

"This is a major day in Michigan's history," Mr. Snyder said. "I don't view this as anti-union at all. I view this as pro-worker."

House Bill 4003 passed by a 58-51 margin, while Senate Bill 116, which applies to private-sector unions, was approved 58-52, making Michigan the second Midwestern state to embrace the right-to-work option.

Indiana approved a similar law in February. The Michigan law exempts unions for police and firefighters.

"This is about freedom, fairness and equality," House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican, said Tuesday morning as Democrats in the chamber sought to quash or stall a vote with a slate of amendments. "These are basic American rights — rights that should unite us."

For a state business community still struggling to gain altitude after a brutal recession, right-to-work will be a "game-changer," Mr. Bolger said.

Minority Democrats, angry that the bill was pushed through the Legislature in a lame-duck session, warned about a political backlash against Mr. Snyder and other Republicans.

"This is the nuclear option," Rep. Doug Geiss, a Democrat, told lawmakers. "This is the most divisive issue that we have had to deal with. And this will have repercussions."

Teamsters union President James P. Hoffa, who joined a crowd of more than 10,000 who descended on the state Capitol, said right-to-work proponents "are waking a sleeping giant. ... I think this is going to really build up the union movement in the long run."

Mirroring the fury of union activists, State Rep. Douglas Geiss, a Democrat, was more blunt: "There will be blood."

As legislators debated, a huge throng of union members, not only from Michigan but also Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, swamped the Statehouse grounds and the streets of downtown Lansing, where police in riot gear kept close watch. Bundled against the cold, many protesters banged wooden clubs on plastic buckets as impassioned speakers invoked the civil rights movement.

"No justice, no peace," they chanted as lawmakers inside the state Senate and House prepared for the final debate.

The Detroit News reported that one trooper used pepper spray to subdue one of the protesters. Two protesters were arrested by midday after they tried to push past troopers to get inside the George Romney Building across from the Capitol, where the governor has an office, state police Capt. Harold Love said.

A tent put up by Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, a business-backed group that supports the right-to-work law, was torn down.

Despite the clash, AFP-M Director Scott Hagerstrom praised the work of Republican lawmakers.

"It's a great day for Michigan," he said amid a cacophony of bullhorns and shouting from opponents. "It's really going to move Michigan forward. We're seeing it already in the jobs that have been created in Indiana. It does not bust the unions, but it will require unions to be more responsive to union membership. A little bit of competition is good for everyone." 

Conservative praise

Free-market economists also praised the vote late Tuesday, saying it would make unions more accountable and improve the state's business and investment climate.

"This is a great victory for American workers," said Richard Vedder, an economic policy adviser at the Heartland Institute in Chicago and a professor at Ohio University. "Now 45 percent of Americans are covered by these laws, and it is only a matter of time before the other big Midwestern states follow suit or have their lunches eaten by Indiana and Michigan."

Workers, however, saw it as an injustice. Wearing steel-toed work boots and hard hats, they held up some pointedly worded signs and railed against what they see as the erosion of the middle class and a big-government assault on the working man.

The crowd included pipe fitters, steamfitters, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and teachers, many wearing shirts emblazoned with their union acronyms. So many public school teachers took the day off to join the protest that a number of school districts in the state called off classes or operated with a reduced faculty.

"This isn't just about Michigan; it's about all of America," said steelworkers Local 200 President Bob Gillis of St. Mary's, Ohio, a father of four who drove to Lansing to support the union efforts. "If they do it in Michigan, Ohio is next."

Dan Franklin a union fire sprinkler fitter for 28 years, drove from Dayton, Ohio, on Monday night to support his fellow union members in Michigan. He shares similar fears of an anti-union sentiment creeping across the Rust Belt.

"It seems like it's starting to surround us," said Mr. Franklin. "At least in Ohio, we have some advantage that we can take something like this up in an election. Here it just seems like it's getting shoved down people's throats." 

Vowing revenge

"Recall Snyder" signs were prolific, as were furious calls for retribution in the wake of the vote. Some issued a warning to Republicans that opponents would be back to change things at the ballot box in 2014.

"Do not let this be the last time," shouted a speaker set up on a stage at City Hall. "The fight begins after this happens."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was among the speakers in downtown Lansing, invoked the civil rights struggle and said the workers in America had "come too far to turn back now."

He called for unions to organize a one-day strike and later stood with lawmakers and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero as they held signs calling for the governor to veto the legislation.

"We've fought too many wars," Mr. Jackson said. "We want democracy at home. This is not what democracy looks like. It's time to fight back."

Mr. Snyder, a former high-tech executive elected governor in 2010, previously resisted the right-to-work measure, calling it divisive. But he began to support the measure in recent weeks, citing the need to attract business and stay competitive with neighboring states such as Indiana.

Interviewed on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's radio show, Mr. Snyder said the right-to-work measure would force unions to be more competitive if they could not count on mandatory dues from workers.

"I actually don't view this as anti-union," the governor said. "I view it as, if the unions did it appropriately, this should make them more responsive, because it really means they have to be listening to workers more attentively and really presenting the value proposition to them."

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