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Michigan lawmakers fast track right-to-work legislation

This news story was published on December 7, 2012.
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By Paul Egan, Kathleen Gray and Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press –

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan, considered the birthplace of the American organized labor movement, was on a fast track to becoming the nation’s 24th right-to-work state late Thursday after the state House and Senate passed bills as part of a package to pass the law.

Labor and Democrats were pushing back hard against the Workplace Fairness and Equity Act, but the efforts seemed futile as the controversial measures moved like greased lightning — and without going through committees or public debate — and could land on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk by next week.

The debate raged across Michigan, and the country on Thursday, as to whether the legislation would do what proponents say, bring fairness to workers and spark economic growth; or do as opponents claim, lower wages and benefits and destroy the middle class.

“The goal isn’t to divide Michigan, it is to bring Michigan together,” said the governor, who previously had said the issue was not on his agenda.

The issue sparked vociferous protests and caused brief skirmishes on the Capitol steps between right-to-work backers and opponents. Inside, police arrested several protesters and sprayed mace at labor activists who tried to rush the Senate floor. But the protests were mostly peaceful.

Democrats in the Senate walked out of the chamber before the vote was taken.

Police took the unusual and controversial step of locking Capitol entrances and blocking citizens’ entry for several hours until labor representatives obtained a court order from Ingham County Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk to reopen the seat of state government and grant access to the “democratic process.”

State Police officials said the Capitol was closed for safety reasons because the building was filled to capacity. Those locked out, including UAW President Bob King, said the move was an affront to democracy.

Right-to-work legislation makes it illegal to require financial support of a union as a condition of employment. Snyder and Republican leaders characterized the bills as giving workers a choice about whether they want to financially support a union. Democrats said the initiative is about union-busting and retribution for Proposal 2, a failed Nov. 6 labor-backed ballot initiative that would have barred a right-to-work law and enshrined collective bargaining in the state constitution.

The bills cover all public and private workers, except police and firefighters, who would be allowed to maintain closed union shops.

No committee hearings were planned, and by late Thursday, the House had passed one of the three bills in a 58-52 vote and the Senate had passed two others — one for private-sector workers and one for public-sector workers — by votes of 22-16 and 22-4, respectively.

The Senate and House passed bills that would impose right-to-work on private unions. But House Democrats, through a procedural move, asked for a reconsideration of bill HB 4054, which technically can’t take place until the next day the House meets, which will be Tuesday.

The Senate bill, SB 116, is identical to the House bill, so the House could just consider the Senate bill on Tuesday instead of worrying about a reconsideration vote on the version of the bill it passed.

The Senate also passed a bill that would impose right to work on public-sector employees, and that bill also now moves to the House, which could vote on the bills as soon as Tuesday.

The bill that passed the House includes a $1 million appropriation. By making it an appropriations bill, the Republicans made it ineligible for repeal through a ballot initiative.

Snyder and GOP legislative leaders rejected charges the bills were being rushed through.

“This topic has been out there for a significant amount of time,” Snyder said. “I think it’s a well understood issue” and “when it arrives on my desk, I plan on signing it.”

Democratic state Rep. Steve Bieda said the haste was “an affront to the constitution,” and “all pieces of legislation deserve thoughtful discussion and debate.”

Snyder said the recent passage of right-to-work legislation in neighboring Indiana put Michigan at risk for losing business to the Hoosier State. And while he told the Detroit Free Press in an interview that he personally didn’t consider it such a high priority that it needed to be dealt with now, Snyder said he supports the principle that workers should be free to choose whether to support a union.

Now, he said, is “time to be a good leader and stand up and take a position.”

He said unions have done a lot of good in Michigan and he hopes the new law will cause unions to do a better job of selling themselves to potential members.

Democrats accused Snyder of selling out to Republican powerbrokers, such as Amway heir Dick DeVos and other CEOs who avidly support the change.

“This bill is not about giving people choice; this bill is about breaking unions,” said Democratic state Rep. Steven Lindberg.

In the Senate, four Republicans — Tory Rocca, Tom Casperson, Mike Nofs and Mike Green — joined with Democrats in opposing right to work. Democrats left the Senate chamber before one of the two bills passed there.

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