Michigan Likely To Become A Right-To-Work State

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The Michigan House and Senate have passed the legislation in different versions, and may take final action on the bills next week. Michigan could become the 24th state to say workers cannot be forced to pay union dues even if they work for a business or government employer with union representation.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When we think of industry in Michigan, the auto companies certainly come to mind. And with that so do the unions. And yet, Michigan could soon have a law on the books that critics see as an attack on labor. Michigan is on path to become the next so-called right to work state. The legislature there started voting on measures yesterday, just hours after the state's Republican governor endorsed the idea. Demonstrations erupted at the state capitol in Lansing and protestors remained there for much of the day. Here's more from Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Union busting is disgusting. Union busting is disgusting...

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: There were some arrests as protesters tried to rush the state senate chamber. Michigan's capitol was closed for several hours to keep out demonstrators, until a judge ordered the doors re-opened because the legislature was meeting and the public had a right to be there.

GREENE: The pushback was furious as it became evident the legislation is on a fast track to become law. That would make Michigan the 24th state to say workers cannot be forced to pay union dues even if they work for a business or government employer with union representation.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Kill the bill. Kill the bill.

PLUTA: Conservatives call it right to work or freedom to work. Liberals and Democrats call it right to work for less. No matter what you call it, this kind of legislation seemed almost unthinkable in Michigan even as neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana approved versions of the laws.

Governor Rick Snyder was considered a Republican moderate who disdained the political warfare with unions embraced by other Republican governors. When asked over the last couple of years, Snyder would simply say right to work was not on his agenda, too controversial when there was other work to get done. All that changed yesterday morning, when Snyder appeared with Republican leaders to announce he would sign a right to work measure.

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've come to the point over the last few weeks and the last month or two where that issue was on the table whether I want it to be there or not.

PLUTA: His decision was to allow Michigan to become a right-to-work state. If things go as planned, it could all be wrapped up as soon as next week. Ford worker and United Auto Workers member Terry Bowman says he'd welcome the law and hopes unions will compete for the right to represent him.

TERRY BOWMAN: It's like having a restaurant where you have no competition. Will that restaurant have good service, great food at a great price? No. If there's no competition, it doesn't work that way. It's the same thing with unions in Michigan right now.

PLUTA: Unions and Democrats say so-called right-to-work laws are actually designed to shrink or even eliminate unions. They say it effectively encourages employees to not pay dues for the services provided by a union.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE WOODROW STANLEY: What we have today is a declaration of war.

PLUTA: Democratic state Representative Woodrow Stanley argued against the legislation when it came up for a vote in the state House.

STANLEY: War on labor unions. That's what it is.

PLUTA: Stanley comes from Flint, where sit-down strikes in the 1930s that launched the UAW as a bargaining force are still celebrated and helped launch Michigan as the cradle of the labor movement. The 76th anniversary of the Flint sit-down strikes comes at the end of this month.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in Lansing, Michigan.

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