LANSING, Mich. – For generations, Michigan was the ultimate labor stronghold – a state built by factory workers for whom a high school diploma and a union card were the ticket to a middle-class life.
Yet it took only hours for Republicans to tear down a key part of that tradition, the requirement that all employees in a union workplace pay dues.
The swift action was the result of a decisive governor who teamed up with a supermajority of GOP allies in the statehouse to win a prize long sought by conservatives. It also provided a window into how state governments might work in an era when they are increasingly run by a single party.
Gov. Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist and corporate executive before his successful run for governor in 2010, didn’t bother with political niceties this week after dropping his previous objection to dealing with the right-to-work issue.
He announced his support Thursday at a news conference.
Within hours, the House and Senate had introduced and approved bills prohibiting what are known as “closed shops,” where workers are required to join a union or pay fees that are equivalent to union dues as a condition of employment.
No topic is touchier for organized labor, which contends such laws enable workers to enjoy benefits won by unions without supporting the costs of organizing and negotiating. Labor leaders say the ultimate intent is to deprive them of money and bargaining power.
“Whether proponents call this ‘right-to-work’ or ‘freedom-to-work,’ it’s really just ‘freedom to freeload,’” said Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association.
Snyder and the Legislature’s top Republicans – House Speaker Jase Bolger and Majority Leader Randy Richardville – steadfastly insisted the measures were not intended to weaken unions but to make them more accountable to members.
“I support the unions in many regards. I support their right to organize,” Snyder said. “I continue to be an advocate for collective bargaining in Michigan. ... This is to give people the ability to choose and decide who they associate with.”
Union leaders and hundreds of rank-and-file activists swarmed the state Capitol grounds and hallways Thursday, chanting and hurling catcalls from the galleries as lawmakers rushed the bills through.
“The tea party takeover of the Michigan GOP is officially complete,” state Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer said.
Emboldened Republicans shrugged off the bitter taunts and pushed onward. Democrats were able to slow debate momentarily with lengthy speeches and parliamentary maneuvers, but ultimately had no ammunition left.
They couldn’t resort to last-ditch measures such as fleeing the state – as fellow Democrats did in Wisconsin and Indiana to stall anti-union bills – because under Michigan rules only simple majorities are needed to conduct business.
Such displays of raw power may become more common around the nation as increasing numbers of legislatures are dominated by a single party. By January, half of all state legislatures will have veto-proof majorities, up from 13 only four years ago. All but three states – Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire – have one-party control of their legislatures, the highest mark since 1928.
Republicans lost five House seats in last month’s election, which likely spurred them to press ahead with right-to-work in the lame-duck session before their majority narrows in January. Similarly, Snyder has shown little interest in caution as he pushes an ambitious “reinventing Michigan” agenda that already included deep tax cuts for businesses and a new levy on pensions.
While the right-to-work measure drew most of the attention, the governor and his allies also forged ahead on other contentious fronts. Voters in November overturned one of Snyder’s biggest accomplishments – a law empowering him to appoint emergency managers for financially distressed cities and school boards.
Instead of retreating, the Republicans unveiled a retooled version Wednesday and rammed it through a House committee the next day, brushing aside complains they were moving too fast. The measure awaits a floor vote.
And they aren’t finished. Other bills on supercharged subjects – from abortion to charter schools to concealed weapons – are on the agenda as Republicans conclude a two-year session dominated by ideological conservatives, many of whom were elected during the 2010 tea party tidal wave.
Said Lansing political analyst David Waymire: “This is old-style political hardball.”