Lansing, Michigan - Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state in the blink of an eye Tuesday after the state House rushed through legislation and Gov. Rick Snyder immediately signed it, capping a day of charged emotions, huge crowds and mostly peaceful demonstrations.
The speed with which the controversial legislation became law left organized labor and Democrats reeling. There is talk of legal challenges and recall efforts. But Democrats and labor leaders say they are mostly focused on 2014, when they hope to regain control of the Legislature and the governor’s office in the face of what they see as a Republican over-reach.
“This is a major day in Michigan’s history,” Snyder told reporters late Tuesday during a news conference, shortly after signing two right-to-work bills approved by the state House Tuesday and by the Senate last Thursday.
The news of the signing was a bit of a surprise, and relayed rather matter-of-factly by the governor. He said he saw how divisive the issue was and noted the large crowds of protesters outside the Capitol, saying he didn’t see a need for a public signing or ceremony. Instead he said it was just time take a position and move forward.
“I don’t view this as anti-labor. I view this as pro-worker,” Snyder said.
Because the new law was designed to include a $1 million appropriation to cover implementation, it can’t be repealed by voter initiative, as the controversial 2011 emergency manager law was on Nov. 6.
But the right-to-work law wasn’t what many of the opponents said they were interested in recalling Tuesday.
“The sleeping tiger is awake now,” Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift told the Free Press. “We have 2014 as a goal to shift out and win justice.”
An estimated 12,500 demonstrators from across the state and around the country converged on the Capitol, waving signs, hoisting inflatable rats mocking Snyder, and stomping their feet and shouting their voices hoarse in the Capitol Rotunda.
When their actions had no effect on the Legislature, demonstrators turned their focus to Snyder and briefly massed outside his offices in the Romney Building across from the Capitol, accusing him of a double-cross with his about-face on right-to-work.
Michigan, following Midwest neighbor Indiana into right-to-work status, garnered huge national and international attention, largely due to the state’s history as a birthplace of the UAW and the location of the first sit-down strikes on the 1930s.
The process began Dec. 4 when Snyder announced publicly that the controversial issue was “on the agenda” in Lansing. By last Thursday, Snyder, who since taking office in 2011 had described right-to-work as too divisive and not on his agenda, bowed to pressure from the conservative wing and announced the process was moving forward. Just five days later, the change was law, without a committee hearing and with little debate in the Legislature.
The law, which makes it illegal to require financial support of a union as a condition of employment, is expected to deal a significant blow to the finances and political clout of organized labor. Snyder and other Republicans who back the law say unions will simply have to do a better job of showing value to members for the dues they pay, since they will no longer have a captive clientele.
Backers of organized labor were adamant that while Tuesday was a major setback for their cause, it was not the death knell.
“Have you ever seen a squirrel get run over and get back up?” asked Joel Bullock, Sr., 66, of Detroit, a retired Ford worker from UAW Local 600 who was at the Capitol on Tuesday. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?
“You don’t have to lay down and roll over just because you take a licking,” he said. “This is coming up again. It won’t be done after today.”
Proponents, such as Patrick Wright, a senior legal analyst with the conservative Mackinac Center, said he’s confident that despite the furor, the change the Legislature made Tuesday will help Michigan’s still-recovering economy.
“We like to think this is bigger than unions,” Wright said at the Capitol. "We like to think this will lead to a better day for all Michiganders."
“It’s going to make this place a better choice for businesses to grow and expand,” he said. “Unions,” whose 700,000 Michigan members account for less than 20% of the state work force, “will continue to exist.”
Steve Benkovsky, the Capitol facilities director, estimated the crowd peaked at 12,500 — 10,000 outside the building and 2,500 inside.
Damage appeared to be minimal, he said.
There were some scuffles between police and protesters, leading police to use pepper spray. A tent erected by right-to-work proponents also got torn down. Three people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and are expected to be arraigned today. But, overall, considering the size of the crowd, police and organizers described the day as peaceful.
The right-to-work law is expected to take effect around April 1, and will cover all public and private employees in Michigan with the exception of police and firefighters, who were intentionally excluded.
Existing contracts won’t be affected by the law, only contracts that take effect or are renewed after the law’s effective date next spring, said Robert Sikkel, a Grand Rapids attorney specializing in employment issues.
Until existing contracts expire, all employees covered by union contracts at governments and businesses with closed shops will have to continue to pay union dues, or at least the union agency fee related to the cost of representation, Sikkel said. But once those contracts expire, employees will be free to decide whether they want to pay anything to the unions, and still will be covered by union-negotiated contracts whether they pay or not, he said.
The state House voted 58-51 to pass a right-to-work bill for public employees, and 58-52 on a bill for private sector workers. State Rep. Jimmy Womack, D-Detroit, wasn’t in the House for the vote on the public sector right to work bill, accounting for the one vote difference between the two bills.
All the Democrats in the House and six Republicans — Anthony Forlini of Harrison Township, Ken Goike of Ray Township, Ken Horn of Frankenmuth, Dale Zorn of Ida, Ed McBroom of Vulcan (in the Upper Peninsula) and Pat Somerville of New Boston — voted no. But it wasn’t enough to defeat the legislation.
The debate over the two bills bill lasted nearly three hours, but were voted on without any committee hearings or input from the public, although audience members in the gallery overlooking the House chamber began chanting “Shame on you,” as soon as the bills were passed.
State Rep. David Rutledge, D-Ypsilanti, provided a personal reason for opposing the legislation, telling his colleagues about being shoved off a diner stool as a young black man by another man who said he couldn’t sit there.
“I can’t begin to tell you what a humiliating experience that was. That changed the trajectory of my life,” he said. “At the moment I hit the floor, that man seemed to have all the rules on his side. At that moment, I decided I wanted to be where the rules are made.”
But state Rep. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, said the right-to-work debate has raged for decades and approving it was way past due.
“This is about freedom in the workplace; it is about fairness, opportunity and allowing choices,” he said.
As the debate raged inside, the sounds of drums and shouts from protesters outside could be heard. Police entered the House floor when a verbal dispute erupted between Democrats and Republicans over a procedural move.
There was a muted reaction in the Capitol rotunda to the first vote, as protesters continued singing “Solidarity Forever” until word filtered around that it had passed. Then there were loud boos and chants of, “Veto!”