He forged a reputation as a moderate, can-do businessman-politician, but Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has taken a leap into the political unknown by embracing a right-to-work bill that has put him at the center of an ideological battle with the state’s powerful union movement that shows no signs of dying down in the weeks ahead.
With President Obama, who openly criticized the right-to-work drive, set to visit Detroit on Monday, opinions are sharply divided over the wisdom of the Republican push to make this longtime bastion of union strength into the nation’s 24th right-to-work state.
Unions and Democrats suffered one of their biggest legislative defeats in years as bills that would undercut a key source of labor funding sailed through both houses of the state Legislature last week. Right-to-work opponents sought this weekend for legal and procedural loopholes that ultimately might defeat any future law, including recall efforts, against lawmakers who led the right-to-work fight as well as legal challenges to tie up the law in court.
But the state’s business leaders, sensing victory, said they were buoyed by the likely passage of the bills, calling right-to-work key to accelerating the state’s economic resurgence after a long period of stagnation and decline.
If Mr. Snyder, a former high-tech executive and venture capitalist elected two years ago, faces a divisive fight by promising to sign the bill, the rhetoric-eschewing governor seems undaunted.
“When you talk about giving workers the freedom to choose, isn’t that something we should all be behind? Not being put in the position where people are forced to send them dues because they are wanting to keep jobs?” Mr. Snyder told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto on Friday, saying he was excited to get the law onto the books.
Right-to-work laws prohibit requiring employees to join a union or pay fees similar to union dues as a condition of employment. Michigan’s law would exempt police officers and firefighters in unions.
The Midwest has been the site of pitched battles over union power in recent years, most notably a failed recall drive in June against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, after he took on the public-sector unions.
Mr. Snyder shrugged off the possibility that his embrace of the right-to-work law would leave him vulnerable to a recall vote as well.
“That just comes with the territory,” he said Friday. “It’s whatever creates jobs in our state. We’re the comeback state. This is another element of Michigan moving forward and really reinventing our state.”
One thing seems certain. Labor forces and their supporters are not going down quietly, even though the governor may have the bill on his desk by the end of the week.
Union activists mustered on Saturday near Detroit to train members from the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers and other labor groups in civil disobedience. Thousands of protesters, including many from out of state, are poised to descend on the Statehouse in Lansing as early as Monday, a day aheadof the resumption of the lame-duck session of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Meanwhile, right-to-work supporters continued their efforts. The Michigan Freedom Fund ran a $1 million ad campaign to muster support for the law, which they say offers choice to workers to decide whether they want to join a union shop.
About 17.5 percent of Michigan workers are unionized, marking a slide for labor in this heavily manufacturing state and following a national trend. Right-to-work laws have been enacted in 23 states, including most recently neighboring Indiana.
Mr. Snyder’s embrace of the law, after sidestepping many of the hot-button issues embraced by other Republican governors, has sparked considerable debate and criticism in the state.
The Detroit Free Press called out the governor for what it described as an “about-face” on his assertions that the right-to-work bill was not on his agenda.
“Snyder has long acknowledged that steamrolling right-to-work legislation through the legislature would have enduring negative consequences for productive collaboration between workers and employees. His decision to embrace such legislation now destroys, in an eyeblink, the trusting relationship he and his business allies have struggled to establish,” said an editorial in the newspaper on Sunday.
“It also yokes a governor who once aspired to be seen as a new kind of Republican with the most ideological, backward-looking elements of that party — the very people whose exclusionary vision of the country’s future was rejected by voters in last month’s election.”
But many in the Michigan business community, including the state Chamber of Commerce, say Mr. Snyder’s move is in line with the independent streak he has shown in a productive two-year period of restoring the state’s fiscal health.
“We think it will help the business climate here,” said Jim Holcomb, senior vice president of business advocacy and general counsel at the Michigan Chamber. “It’s pro-worker, pro-Michigan. It’s going to put out that sign that says Michigan is moving forward.”
He added, “If you look at other states that have this, they have faster growth in jobs, in net migration, higher [gross domestic product] — all the economic factors turned up when you got freedom of work. Michigan has now taken the bold step they did to move ahead, and we are confronting the hard truth that we need to change in this state.”
Charles Owens, state director for the Michigan chapter of the National Federal of Independent Business, said a right-to-work law changes the image of the state as a place to do business. “I think that it’s going to move our state quickly to the top tier of states in the competition for new business investment and jobs,” he said, noting a 2009 survey that found that about 78 percent of his members supported the idea.
He calls Statehouse protesters, who at one point last week tried to rush the floor of the Senate to halt debate, “violent hooligans” who are out of touch with the future.
“They are not winning the hearts and minds of the public by their behavior at the Capitol. They are stuck in the 1930s, and this is the 21st century,” he said. “Those unions that come to grip with that will always have a place in the economy with their members. Those who don’t should be worried.”
Impact on autos
If the law does pass, it is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the state’s marquee business, auto manufacturing.
Kristin Dziczek, director of the Labor and Industry Group at the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Michigan, said it likely would be several years for the right-to-work laws to affect the automotive sector in Michigan, because the bills being considered exempt labor agreements in place for automakers and supply-chain companies for several years.
“It’s not like everybody is going to quit the union tomorrow when they are suddenly able to do so,” she said. “Many of these companies, including the [Big Three automakers], operate in right-to-work states already, in places like Indiana, Kansas [and] Texas and they still have a majority of the workforce as union members.”
She expects myriad challenges in court in addition to battles at the ballot box to change a right-to-work law. For that reason, she said, “we’re not reliably a right-to-work state yet until all of the challenges are worked through.”
“In the short term, I don’t think we are going to get a lot of new auto investments here because it’s not a stable situation.”