LANSING, Mich. — After weeks of speculation, Michigan’s GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday pushed ahead with a bill to make this historic labor stronghold a right-to-work state, sparking a clash in the state Capitol and setting up what could be an epic fight watched by union and management supporters nationwide.
As police outside pushed back protesters with pepper spray, the GOP-dominated state House of Representatives, by a 58-52 vote, quickly approved the Workplace Equity and Fairness Act, which would end mandatory union-dues collection at any Michigan company and would apply to public and private workers with the exception of firefighters and police.
Later Thursday, the state Senate, where Republicans hold a healthy 26-12 margin, also passed the legislation.
It would make Michigan the 24th state in the nation to adopt a right-to-work law, 10 months after neighboring Indiana adopted one.
State police officers were out in full force at the domed Statehouse, employing at times a chemical spray on aggressive protesters who tried to push their way into the Senate chamber. Eight protesters were arrested as they converged on the Capitol.
Police said about 3,000 people were at the Statehouse by Thursday afternoon, with some chanting in the rotunda and others, many wearing hard hats and holding signs, gathering on the lawn.
Witnesses reported that chanting, whistling protesters flooded the building and grounds as the governor and his allies pressed for quick votes on measures that would prohibit unions from collecting fees from workers who decline union representation. Under state law, the bill must sit for five days before the Senate can move ahead for a vote.
Acknowledging that the legislation was moving ahead “whether I want it to be there or not,” Mr. Snyder, joined by House Speaker James “Jase” Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, said Thursday morning that the time has come for decisions on such a bill. The first-term governor, a businessman and relative moderate in the party, previously resisted endorsing the law for fear it would provoke a divisive, distracting political fight.
By midafternoon, citing security concerns and the rising number of people inside the building, police blocked entry to the Capitol, keeping out union leaders including American Federation of Teachers-Michigan President David Hecker, Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift and United Auto Workers President Bob King.
Democrats in the state Senate staged a walkout Thursday after the measure was passed by a 22-16 margin. The Republicans left in the chamber went on approve a similar bill affecting public-sector unions on a 22-4 vote.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley had to gavel the Senate to order repeatedly as Democrats played to the applause of the packed gallery as they futilely denounced the legislation. One demonstrator shouted “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! That’s what you people are” as he was taken out of the gallery.
Supporters of the measure include Americans for Prosperity-Michigan members, who have mounted a grass-roots campaign. They manned an information tent at the Statehouse this week, calling the right-to-work law pro-freedom.
They note the law would not stop anyone from joining a union or limit their right to collective bargaining. But unions have long fought such laws because they prevent unions from forcing workers at organized work sites to join the union or pay mandatory dues as a condition of their employment.
Mr. Snyder has also noted that Indiana has enjoyed a competitive advantage in attracting business and investment since it passed its own law.
The Midwest has long been a bastion for industrial unions such as the UAW, but the labor movement has suffered a string of defeats. In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived a union-led recall battle over his move to curb collective bargaining for public-sector employees. Indiana’s vote for a right-to-work law was quickly followed by the rejection by Michigan voters last month of another labor initiative that would have enshrined collective bargaining as a right in the state constitution.
“A victory over forced unionization in a union stronghold like Michigan would be an unprecedented win on par with Wisconsin that would pave the way for right to work in states across our nation,” AFP-Michigan Executive Director Scott Hagerstrom said in a statement.
Unions, he added, have “overreached in Michigan when they tried to strong-arm their way into our constitution,” citing the vote on Proposal 2, the ballot measure that would have enshrined collective bargaining into the state’s constitution. It failed on a 57 percent to 42 percent vote.
“Early unions fought for better pay, safer working conditions and shorter work hours — protections now mostly granted by federal and state law,” Mr. Hagerstrom said. “Unfortunately, today’s unions have become a force for higher spending and taxes. Freedom in the workplace would ensure that unions are not able to skim dues from workers who do not support their big-government agenda.”
How passage of a right-to-work law might play out politically for the governor and state Republicans is uncertain.
Bill Ballenger, the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said right-to-work backers run the risk of a major backlash if they end up losing the legislative battle.
“After making Snyder come out and do this, or urging him to do this, if they don’t have the votes, that would be a disgrace to party leadership in the Legislature,” Mr. Ballenger said. “Or they will have compromised the governor’s image and reputation and probably earned him opponents in an election or in trying to get his agenda passed.
“I think a lot depends on the response from the Democratic Party and organized labor — what they decide to do in the next few weeks, assuming it passes,” he said. “I do think it complicates life for the governor.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.