By Kristen M. Daum
Michigan is on its way to becoming the 24th state with a right-to-work law, after the
Republican-controlled House and Senate both approved legislation Thursday despite
passionate protests from union workers and Democratic lawmakers.
“They’re cowards,” said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing. “We are the minority, but we’re going to use every tool we can to slow this down so the public has every opportunity to weigh in.”
Based on legislative rules, it’s unclear exactly how quickly the bills could get final approval in the Legislature, but because of the Republican majority, right-to-work legislation is almost certain to pass.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said earlier Thursday he would sign the bills if and when they come to his desk.
“We’ve come to a point where this issue was on the agenda whether I wanted it to be or not,” Snyder said. “It’s important to stand up and be a leader on this.”
After days of rumor and speculation, Snyder and Republican legislative leaders announced their definite intent to pursue right-to-work legislation for the first time at around 11 a.m. Thursday.
Right-to-work laws make it illegal to make union dues a condition of employment.
Snyder and other Republicans said they feel such a law would promote business and job growth in Michigan, but unions say the law will diminish workers’ rights. About 17 percent of Michigan’s workforce is affiliated with a union.
“This is about workplace fairness and equality,” said House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall. “Workers deserve freedom to make decisions for themselves and their families.”
Right-to-work legislation officially moved on to the House and Senate floors by about mid-afternoon.
Republicans used existing pieces of labor legislation — House Bill 4054 in the House and House Bill 4003 and Senate Bill 116 in the Senate — to move through the right-to-work provisions without having to introduce fresh bills.
At various points during debate, Democrats disrupted business on the floors of both chambers to oppose the Republicans’ tactics.
The House vote came first just before 5 p.m. It was approved mostly along party lines, 58-52, with all Democrats and some Republicans opposing it.
“This is a monumental decision that will give unions the freedom to make their case while giving workers the freedom to make a choice,” said Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, an avid proponent for right to work. His district includes portions of Eaton County.
Prior to the vote, though, the 46-member Democratic caucus walked out of the chamber in protest because the
Capitol had not been reopened to the public despite an order by an Ingham County judge.
With thousands of protesters descending upon the Capitol, Michigan State Police had closed the building earlier in the day citing capacity and safety concerns.
Democrats left the Capitol in an attempt to escort the public inside. Several said they were locked out temporarily, which initially prevented them from casting their votes. The legislators and the public were ultimately let back in the building around 4:40 p.m.
“Lame duck is the most dangerous period of time in the legislative session,” said outgoing Ingham County Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga. “This is the time for deliberating thoughtful legislation that has been carefully vetted. This is not (that).”
A few hours later, the Michigan Senate passed SB 116 by a 22-16 vote, with Democrats and four Republicans voting against it.
A separate bill approving right to work strictly for public-sector workers passed a few minutes afterward by a 22-4 vote. The chamber’s 12 Democrats walked off the floor in protest and were purposely absent for that vote on HB 4003.
Senate Democrats attempted to delay the vote for several hours by proposing nearly two dozen amendments and engaging in lengthy speeches.
During the debate, several protesters seated in the chamber’s gallery were escorted out after they disrupted the proceedings.
One man shouted down at the lawmakers: “We will remember in November.”
Later on, a woman yelled: “What’s the price of your soul?”
None of the right-towork bills have yet been subjected to scrutiny or testimony in legislative committees. The bills are substitutes for existing bills that had already moved out of committee.
According to legislative records, HB4054 had been dormant since it was introduced in January 2011, until it was suddenly reported out of committee on Wednesday.
SB 116 also had no action since February 2011 before it was brought forward Thursday. House Bill 4003, which the Senate also took up, had no action for one year prior to Thursday.
Democratic lawmakers said appropriations had been added to the bills, which would make them immune from repeal through ballot referendum.
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