Mich. Approves 'Right To Work' Bill As Dems Walk Out

Michigan's state house has voted to approve a "right-to-work" bill that would weaken the power of labor unions. Democrats walked out in protest. Audie Cornish talks to Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Michigan is on the way to joining the ranks of so-called right-to-work states. The state legislature has been voting on a very controversial measure that would generally bar unions from collecting fees or dues from non-union employees. Twenty-three other states have similar laws curtailing union organizing activities on the books. Union supporters filled the capitol building to protest the action by Michigan Republicans.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting) You can't get busted, (unintelligible), you get busted...

CORNISH: Joining us now inside the capitol in Lansing is Rick Pluta. And, Rick, what's happening there this evening?

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Well, the House voted this afternoon to adopt the first of three right-to-work bills dealing with various aspects of it. The Senate has just passed one and they are debating the third one. And that will just start Michigan down the road to becoming the 24th right-to-work state in the country. This particular legislation would cover all unions, public and private, with public and private employers, but it would provide exceptions for police and firefighter unions.

CORNISH: So, tell us more about the protests there. I gather that they escalated over the course of the day.

PLUTA: Yeah. In the morning, protestors started packing the capitol and they got quite crowded, to the point where the building managers and the state police closed it for a while, even though it wasn't packed to capacity. They said it was still a safety issue. And so, as people left, they just weren't letting more people in. The people who remained were quite loud. As the legislation was being debated, you could actually hear them chanting and shouting inside the chamber. But, along the way, the unions and Democrats went to court saying that you can't just shut down the capitol building during a debate. And so they got a court order, and the doors were reopened right about the time that the state House was voting on their right-to-work bill. It's called right-to-work; supporters call it right-to-work or freedom-to-work; opponents, progressives call it right-to-work-for-less. And at that point, as the House was voting on it, the protestors flooded back into the capitol in time for the Senate debates.

CORNISH: Now, this seems to have moved rather quickly. I mean, was that intentional?

PLUTA: Well, the pivot was really a change in position by Governor Rick Snyder, that for two years that he's been adamant that right-to-work - so-called right-to-work proponents call it that, or freedom-to-work opponents call it right-to-work-for-less - he said that right-to-work was just too confrontational, too in-your-face, but he said now it's just become so big that it was impossible to ignore. And it was time to make a decision.

GOVERNOR RICK SNYDER: It is a divisive issue. It's an issue where you can see what's going on outside, that people have strong feelings on this topic. But we'd come to the point over the last few weeks in the last month or two where that issue was on the table whether I wanted it to be there or not.

CORNISH: So, Rick, what are we likely to see next?

PLUTA: Well, what we're likely to see next is the state House and the Senate - it's actually five days now before they can vote again on these bills. And so no doubt we'll see a lot of activity, more protests during that period of time, although with Republican majorities in the House and the Senate who've already voted for this legislation, it seems like it's really just a matter of when and not if this legislation is going to reach Governor Snyder's desk.

CORNISH: Rick, thank you.

PLUTA: My pleasure, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta reporting from the state capitol building. Michigan is in the process of passing so-called right-to-work legislation, which would allow workers at a unionized company to opt-out of paying dues.

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