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Updated Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 10:16 PM

Michigan law deals blow to unions' power

By MONICA DAVEY
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 that unions will be financed, substantially reducing their power in a state that has long been a symbol of union might and served as an incubator for the U.S. 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 campaign to regain control of the state House and governor's office by 2014.

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.

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 setback to organized labor in states, like Indiana and Wisconsin, where it has traditionally been strong.

National labor leaders predicted a backlash and said they were weighing options in the courts or future election campaigns.

Although Republicans control the state Capitol, Snyder, a former businessman who had not held public office before his election in 2010, had regularly sidestepped the most divisive issues — including so-called right to work legislation — with talk of "relentless positive action."

"Today is a game changer for Michigan, for its workers, and for our future," said Jase Bolger, the Republican House speaker, who had helped lead 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, 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.

Advocates say it is attractive to businesses looking to relocate companies and allows workers to make their own choices about unions.

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

"I was hoping that this day would never come," Mark Meadows, a House Democrat, said. "In the last two years, there's been a chipping away at bargaining. But today, the corporations delivered the coup de grâce."

It was only in the final days of the Legislature's meetings that Snyder first announced publicly that he intended to support such a measure.

Later that day, language was being introduced in the form of substitute bills that required little additional public airing, and within six days, the bills were finished and signed.

Attached to the bills were financial appropriations, which make more arduous any effort at citizen repeal.

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.

Snyder said he expects the law to be challenged in court but believes it will stand. He said unions were largely responsible for its divisiveness, having ignored his advice and pushed an unsuccessful November ballot initiative seeking to make right-to-work laws unconstitutional.

The bitter campaign over the ballot measure put the issue on center stage.

Snyder signed the bills without fanfare Tuesday afternoon, alerting reporters 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," Snyder said, insisting 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 AFL-CIO's general counsel.

"It's simply antithetical to collective bargaining."


BILL PUGLIANO / GETTY IMAGES
Michigan State Police in riot gear at the capital in Lansing push back protesters who object to right-to-work legislation. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law on Tuesday.




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