Limits on Unions Pass in Michigan, Once a Mainstay

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Courtesy of The New York Times

LANSING, Mich. — With Democrats and labor leaders vowing retribution at the ballot box and beyond, the Republican-dominated Michigan Legislature on Tuesday approved sweeping, statewide changes to the way unions will be financed, substantially reducing their power in a state that has long been a symbol of union might and an incubator for the American labor movement.

As thousands of incensed union members filled the Capitol rotunda and poured out onto its lawn chanting “shame, shame,” labor leaders and Democrats said they would immediately mount an intense, unceasing campaign to regain control of the Legislature and the governor’s office by 2015.

But advocates of the legislation, which outlaws requirements that workers pay fees to unions as a condition of employment, lauded the day as a historic turning point for economic health in Michigan, and some Republicans predicted that their victory here would embolden other states to enact similar measures.

The legislation, which Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed almost immediately, is the latest in series of setbacks to organized labor in states where it has traditionally been strong, like Indiana and Wisconsin. National labor leaders predicted a backlash and said they were weighing options in the courts and in future elections.

“We are not going to end it today,” said Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We will be in the streets,” he said, adding, “If we have to work it through 2014 and change the makeup of the legislatures, that’s what we’ll do.”

Some were talking about calling for some sort of ballot initiative, aimed at accomplishing what union supporters had in Ohio in 2011 after efforts to sharply limit collective bargaining there. Other recent history suggests that such efforts can be difficult. In Wisconsin, a push to recall the governor over cuts to collective bargaining failed this year.

Though Republicans control the Legislature, Mr. Snyder, a former businessman who had not held public office before his election in 2010, had regularly sidestepped the most divisive issues, including legislation restricting unions, with talk of “relentless positive action.” This chapter came as a surprise to many here and seemed to open a gulf.

Some lawmakers grew tearful as they argued over the matter on the House floor. Outside, exchanges between demonstrators on each side turned tense, leaving some screaming curses and jabbing fingers into the air.

By evening, two large canopies belonging to the opposing camps lay crumpled on the Capitol lawn, the police said. At least two people were arrested, they said, after trying to press past one of the large clusters of state troopers that stood guard at the George W. Romney Building, which houses the governor’s office. And at least one police officer had used a substance similar to pepper spray during the protests.

“Today is a game changer for Michigan, for its workers and for our future,” said Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican who helped lead the efforts to make Michigan the nation’s 24th state — and only the second one, along with Indiana, in the traditional Midwestern manufacturing belt — to ban requirements that workers pay fees for union representation.

The legislation here, which will go into effect next year, bans any requirement that most public and private sector employees at unionized workplaces be made to pay dues or other fees to unions. In the past, those who opted not to be union members were often required to pay fees to unions that bargained contracts for all employees at their workplace.

But the change means vastly different things to the two sides. Advocates say that it is attractive to businesses looking to move and that it allows workers to make choices about unions.

“This is the day when Michigan freed its workers,” Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican state representative who said her family included union members, told colleagues during the intense debate on Tuesday, which ended with votes along largely party lines. Last week, the Senate passed the package — one bill dealing with public workers, the other with employees of private companies.

Critics say the legislation encourages workers not to pay union dues (but still gain contract benefits through them), weakens unions and tends to drive down wages.

“I was hoping that this day would never come,” said Mark Meadows, a Democratic state representative. “In the last two years, there’s been a chipping away at bargaining. But today, the corporations delivered the coup de grâce.”

Many opponents expressed fury over the process here as well, one that Democrats denounced as rushed, sneaky and “under cover of darkness.”

Only last Thursday, during the final days of the departing Legislature’s meetings, did Mr. Snyder, who had long said he did not consider the legislation to be on his agenda, first announce publicly that he intended support such a measure. Later that day, language was being introduced in the chambers in the form of substituted bills that required little additional public airing. Within six days, the bills were finished and signed. Attached to the bills were financial appropriations, which make any effort at voter repeal more arduous.

Republicans defended the tactics, saying that the notion of outlawing the union fee requirements for workers as a condition of employment had long been debated in Michigan and that now was the time to act. Speed, some said, was merely intended to avoid mounting division and chaos in the Capitol.

Mr. Snyder signed the bills without fanfare on Tuesday afternoon, alerting reporters of it after the fact. “There were a number of people out protesting, so I don’t see the need to have a public signing ceremony to overemphasize that,” Mr. Snyder said, insisting that the moves were not “anti-union.” “Because this isn’t about us versus them. This is about us being Michiganders and trying to work together.”

To some, including those carrying signs on the lawn and chanting “no justice, no peace” inside the Capitol rotunda, that seemed doubtful anytime soon.

“We’re going to have to do a better job in Michigan and other states where ‘right to work’ is being discussed — that you can’t be in favor of collective bargaining and what collective bargaining represents for ordinary people in terms of some counterweight to growing income inequality and still support right-to-work legislation,” said Craig Becker, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s general counsel.

Back at the Capitol, Frank Burger, a teacher from the Flint area, shook his head. “This is disgusting, and it’s not over,” he said. “These people just handed over the election to the Democrats in 2014. Just watch.”

 

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