by Mira Oberman
CHICAGO, Dec 11, 2012 (AFP) – Thousands of protesters descended on Michigan’s state capitol Tuesday as lawmakers prepared to pass union-curbing “right-to-work” legislation in a state seen as the heart of the labor movement.
The measure would weaken unions by allowing workers who get the same wages and benefits as union members to decline to pay any union dues.
Democratic lawmakers begged their Republican colleagues not to pass the controversial bill, which they warned would unleash deep social and political strife.
“There will be blood. There will be repercussions,” state representative Douglass Geiss told the chamber.
Geiss reminded his colleagues of the violent clashes that accompanied the struggle to form unions in the 1930s and warned that people feel just as strongly about solidarity today.
“If ten people walk in and say I’m not going to pay dues anymore, there’s going to be fights,” he warned.
State representative John Switlaski lashed out at the fact Republicans were pushing the bill through in a lame duck session using a parliamentary maneuver that limits debate and means Democrats can’t stop it unless they regain control in the 2014 election.
“The next two years are going to be terrible. They’re going to be ugly,” Switlaski said.
“I think we should pause and take a step back… let the people have a say. we’ll vote for it. Put it on the ballot.”
Republican state representative Lisa Lyons insisted the law was about giving workers their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of association.
“We are witnessing history in the making,” she said. “This is the day that Michigan freed its workers.”
Boos and chants of “veto” poured into the chamber from the gallery after the House voted 58-51 to pass the bill, sending it to Governor Rick Snyder for final approval.
Hundreds of union members and supporters crowded into the capitol dome, blowing whistles and chanting “the people are united” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”
Thousands more shivered in the cold outside, television news footage showed.
“The right wing forces in Michigan are trying to take power away from working families,” United Auto Workers union chief Bob King told reporters.
“They want working families to have less income, less security. This is about partisanship, not bringing the state together.”
Currently, the state operates a “closed shop” policy that requires workers who profit from collective bargaining to pay fees but does not make it mandatory for them to become union members.
The right-to-work law creates an incentive for people not to join the union in what is known as the “free rider” problem because it allows them to benefit from collective bargaining without paying for it.
Snyder insists the law is necessary “to maintain our competitive edge” and attract new jobs, especially after neighboring Indiana became the 23rd US state to enact right-to-work legislation earlier this year.
But while business may profit from weakening unions, the real motivation for lawmakers is political, said Roland Zullo, a labor relations expert at the University of Michigan.
“This whole right-to-work thing is retribution,” Zullo told AFP. “It’s really about the fact that unions in Michigan were very important actors in helping to elect Democrats this last election.”
Unions are a key source of financial and grassroots get-out-the-vote support for President Barack Obama’s Democrats, and he was quick to slam the controversial bill in an appearance at Michigan auto plant Monday.
“You know, these so-called right-to-work laws — they don’t have to do with economics: they have everything to do with politics,” Obama told a cheering crowd of unionized workers.
“What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
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