Right-to-work debate heats up in Michigan

JEFF KAROUB JOHN FLESHER Associated Press Published:

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Even with the outcome considered a foregone conclusion, the heated battle over right-to-work legislation in the traditional union bastion of Michigan shows no sign of cooling.

Authorities in Lansing were bracing for an onslaught of demonstrators today at the Michigan Capitol as the Legislature reconvenes for what could be final votes on bills. Hundreds of people gathered early Tuesday to get inside.

"I want to try to get into the gallery. I want to see the proceedings," said Wes Nakagiri of Livingston County's Hartland Town-ship, an engineer with an auto parts supplier. "I'm for the legislation, but I can see both sides."

If it is passed and signed into law, Michigan would become the 24th right-to-work state, banning requirements that non-union employees pay unions for negotiating contracts and other services.

Democratic lawmakers and union backers concede they have little chance of stopping the tide, given the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who has pledged to sign the measure into law.

In an interview Tuesday with WWJ-AM, Snyder said he expects the bills to be on his desk later this week, calling them "good legislation." He said the intention is to give workers a choice, not to target unions.

"This is about being pro-worker," Snyder said.

But foes of the law, including President Barack Obama, are trying to keep the spotlight on this latest battleground in the war over union rights.

Sharon Mowers, 54, of Lansing, is a United Auto Workers union member who has worked for General Motors Co. for 13 years. She was among those gathered outside the Capitol and said the legislation will bring lower wages for workers.

"People don't understand the labor movement," Mowers said. "They don't understand the sacrifices people made to get us to this point."

In other states, similar battles were drawn-out affairs lasting weeks. But Snyder, a business executive-turned-governor, and the Republican-dominated Legislature used their political muscle to rapidly introduce and ramrod legislation through the House and Senate in a single day last week. Demonstrators and Democrats howled in protest, but to no avail.

On Tuesday, asked about the speed at which the legislation moved forward, Snyder said the issue wasn't rushed in Lansing. He said the question about whether to make Michigan a right-to-work state has long been discussed.

"There has been lots of time for citizens to contact legislators and share their feelings," he said.

A victory in Michigan, a cradle of organized labor, would give the right-to-work movement its strongest foothold yet in the Rust Belt, where the 2010 election and tea party movement produced assertive Republican majorities that have dealt unions one body blow after another.

For all the shouting, the actual benefit or harm of such laws is not clear. Each camp has pointed to studies bolstering their claims, but one labor expert said the conclusions are, well, inconclusive.

"Very little is actually known about the impact of right-to-work laws," Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Massachusetts, said Monday. "There's a lot of assumptions that they create or destroy jobs, but the correlation is not definite."

Democrats contend Republicans, who lost five House seats in the November election, wanted to act before a new legislature takes office next month. In passionate floor speeches last week, they accused the majority of ignoring the message from voters and bowing to right-wing interest groups.

Criticism of the legislation has come from all the way up the Democratic food chain.

"These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have anything to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics," Obama told cheering workers Monday during a visit to an engine plant in Redford, Mich. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and members of the state's U.S. House delegation met with Snyder on Monday in Detroit and urged him to veto the legislation or amend it to allow a statewide referendum. Levin said the governor pledged to "seriously consider" the requests.

In Lansing, leaders of the Democratic minority in the state House acknowledged there was little they could do to stop the fast-moving legislation in the waning days of the session.

However, they vowed to vote against other legislation as a form of protest.

Ari Adler, spokesman for Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger, chided those in Washington for "trying to tell Republicans in Michigan to slow down and not do our job in Lansing while they fail to resolve the nation's fiscal cliff crisis or even approve a budget."

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Associated Press writers Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis, Ed White in Detroit, Corey Williams in Lansing, Mich., and Ben Feller in Redford, Mich., contributed to this story.

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