Protests Surge As 'Right To Work' Bill Passes In Mich.

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Michigan's House approved legislation on Tuesday that would significantly weaken union powers, as protestors gathered outside. Opponents claim it is politically motivated and hurts the average worker. Supporters say it will help attract new businesses to the state. Thousands of protestors descended on the capitol building as the vote took place.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with violence and arrests in Michigan's capital city of Lansing today. The unrest came as state representatives voted to send Governor Rick Snyder a pair of bills that will limit union power in the state. The right-to-work legislation allows workers in a union shop to opt out of paying union dues. Snyder, who's a Republican, has now signed that bill into law. From Lansing, Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta reports.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Veto. Veto. Veto. Veto.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Demonstrators chanted as the Republican-dominated state House voted to send the controversial bills to the governor. They were hoping Rick Snyder will have another change of heart. It was not to be. Even though up until last week he called the measures too controversial and too explosive here in what may be the nation's most union-friendly state.

Snyder says after neighboring Indiana approved right-to-work legislation, he took another look at it. He says it's now needed for Michigan to compete for jobs to bring down its persistently high unemployment rate.

But Democrats and union leaders aren't just upset at the legislation. They're angry because of how it was rolled out and fast-tracked with no warning, no hearings, no opportunity for public comment.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE DOUG GEISS: This is the nuclear option.

PLUTA: Democratic State Representative Doug Geiss is from a suburban Detroit district. He says Republicans pushed through this legislation now to give business interests what they've long wanted even though Republicans lost seats here in the last election. Democrat Brandon Dillon says he's angry that a provision will shield the law from any referendum challenge.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE BRANDON DILLON: Good ideas get debated, and bad ones get rammed through with police protection in a lame-duck legislature.

PLUTA: There is a big police presence here today, with officers stationed at every entrance and stairwell of the Capitol building. Many are wearing riot gear and carrying tear gas launchers. Some were on horseback. Upwards of 12,000 people showed up to demonstrate. There were arrests, and some demonstrators were pepper-sprayed. Opponents of right-to-work far outnumbered supporters, but there was fierce feuding where their paths crossed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How many of you read the bill? Not one of you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, I know what it does.

PLUTA: This could mark a cultural shift in a state that is fundamental to the labor movement. While only about 17 percent of Michigan's workforce is unionized, this is a state that still commemorates the 1936-37 Flint sit-down strikes.

REPRESENTATIVE RICHARD HAMMEL: My grandfather was a sit-downer at Fisher body in 1937...

PLUTA: Rick Hammel is the Michigan House Democratic leader.

HAMMEL: ...and would be brokenhearted to see the direction the state has taken in regards to labor protection.

PLUTA: Labor leaders may bear some responsibility for giving Republicans their opening though. They pushed a measure on the November ballot to enshrine bargaining rights in the state constitution. But it was sweeping and complicated. Voters rejected it. Right-to-work supporters like Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger saw that as an opening.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES BOLGER: This is about freedom, fairness and equality. These are basic American rights, rights that should unite us. There is no reason, but for politics, for them to divide us.

PLUTA: But union leaders and Democrats say that's precisely what this is about: politics, limiting unions' influence by making it harder for them to collect dues, bargain contracts, keep their members and elect Democrats.

Now that the governor has signed the bills, union leaders are looking at their next possible steps, including legal challenges, trying to recall Republican lawmakers and making this a cornerstone issue in statewide elections two years from now. For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in Lansing, Michigan.

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