Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state on Tuesday night, when Gov. Rick Snyder signed the law after a day of angry protests from the state’s labor unions. Home to more than 700,000 union members, Michigan is the second state this year to adopt the legislation, which prohibits requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
The measure was pushed quickly through the Michigan state Senate late last week, giving residents, liberal advocacy groups, and union members little time to mobilize in protest. The legislation, seen as the latest attempt to bust powerful unions, is likely to go into effect in March.
“For millions of Michigan workers, this is no ordinary debate,” Sen. Carl Levin said Tuesday. “It’s an assault on their right to have their elected bargaining agent negotiate their pay, benefits, and working conditions, and to have all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them.”
Snyder, a Republican, has come under heavy criticism for his sudden about-face on right to work, which he previously said he would not adopt in the state. State Republicans—under pressure from Grover Norquist, the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, and Americans for Prosperity—persuaded Snyder to change that stance, setting in motion the rapid passage of the legislation along party lines in a lame-duck session of the state Senate last Thursday.
“After spending years telling us that ‘right to work for less’ legislation was off the table, Gov. Snyder has created an embarrassing national spectacle by doing a full flip-flop on this issue,” U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, a Democrat, told the Detroit Free Press on Tuesday. “Perhaps most disturbing of all, Gov. Snyder and his right-wing allies used every trick in the book to prevent the people from being able to hold a referendum vote on this issue.”
“The timing of the introduction of this legislation makes it clear that there is a sinister, ideologically backward political agenda sweeping the nation,” said Rev. D. Alexander Bullock, president of the Detroit chapter of Rainbow-PUSH. “Michigan has now become ground zero for the fight against an anti-American worker agenda. We will not stand idly by while the conservative agenda that sweeps our nation seeks to destroy the middle class.”
Snyder told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Tuesday, prior to signing the legislation, that right to work, or “freedom to work,” as he called it, is about creating better jobs and helping protect small businesses.
“It’s about giving freedom of choice to workers,” Snyder said. “This is to move Michigan forward, about more and better jobs and worker choice.”
In the last two years, Wisconsin and Ohio have attempted to adopt similar legislation restricting collective-bargaining rights, with the latter effort being defeated in a statewide vote earlier this year. Union members and supporters across Michigan saw the signing of the law Tuesday as a foregone conclusion, though that did not stop them from making their voices loudly heard inside the capitol and on the streets.
Protesters were briefly locked out of the capitol building last Thursday in a scene reminiscent of the Wisconsin protests in 2011. On Tuesday, with the House vote all but a formality, Michigan state police prepared for up to 2,500 protesters inside the capitol and another 10,000 protesters outside.
The protesters exceeded those projections, with estimates ranging between 13,000 and 18,000 protesters in Lansing, including members of the UAW and AFL-CIO, as well as the Rev. Jesse Jackson. More protests were held across the state, including one in downtown Detroit and another in front of Snyder’s home in Ann Arbor.
Michigan state police, clad in full riot gear, formed a line around the George W. Romney Building, where Snyder has an office, across the street from the capitol. Police and firefighters are exempt from right to work due to special collective-bargaining rights that prevent strikes.
Early in the day, members of the SEIU staged a sit-in at the entrance and exits of the building, blocking Snyder’s motorcade. Some union members called the officers “traitors” and shouted other derisive insults as they were being kept away, while others commended the officers for doing their jobs.
Police arrested two protesters, including one who was pepper-sprayed after grabbing an officer. No serious injuries were reported. Supporters of right to work also made their presence felt, in much smaller numbers, during the protests. Minor confrontations and scuffles broke out in the early morning.
“We are really excited and energized, and we want to stand in solidarity with the courageous lawmakers,” said Annie Patnaude, deputy state director of the Michigan chapter of Americans for Prosperity, whose tent at the capitol was destroyed by union protesters. “I have an 8-month-old and a 2-year-old, and I want them to be able to grow up in Michigan and find a job.”
The main battle cry of the anti-right-to-work protesters, meanwhile, had a common theme: wait for 2014. Many of the GOP seats, including Snyder’s, will be up for grabs during the midterm elections. Rather than attempt to recall Republicans, as Wisconsin Democrats tried and failed to do to Gov. Scott Walker, the Michigan unions are set to mobilize behind Democrats and pro-union Republicans in two years.
“What you did today is going to happen over the next two years,” said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Michigan chapter. Teachers made up a large number of the protesters on Tuesday, and three schools in suburban Detroit were closed as a result of a teacher-led protest.
“Those legislators who voted for right to work,” Hecker added, “will know where we’ll be; they will know when we’ll be there; they will know what we’re going to do, but they’re going to be sorry at what they have decided to put themselves through the next two years.”
Labor unions have long been a strong political force in Michigan, skewing heavily toward Democrats. President Obama, who visited Detroit on Monday, won Michigan in 2008 and 2012 due in large part to overwhelming support from labor unions. No Republican presidential candidate has carried the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
“We know that Governor Snyder said that he was just going to sign this thing and ‘put it behind us,’” said Karla Swift, president of the Michigan chapter of the AFL-CIO. “We came here today, and not just the 17,000 of us who came here but the millions of people we represent who couldn’t be here today, and we’re not moving on.”