Despite labor’s fury, Michigan OK’s union changes

Measure outlaws mandatory dues as job condition

Amid protests in the State Capitol, the Michigan Legislature approved legislation that will weaken unions.
Amid protests in the State Capitol, the Michigan Legislature approved legislation that will weaken unions.

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 US 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, unceasing 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, and some Republicans predicted that their victory here would embolden other states to enact similar measures.

The legislation, which Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed almost immediately, is the latest in series of setbacks to organized labor in states, such as 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.


“We are not going to end it today,’’ said Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.”We will be in the streets,’’ he said, adding later, ‘‘If we have to work it through 2014 and change the makeup of the legislatures, that’s what we’ll do.’’

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By evening, two large canopies — that had belonged to supporters on opposite sides of the debate — lay crumpled on the Capitol lawn, the police said, and at least two people were arrested, said to have tried to press past one of the large clusters of state troopers that stood guard at the door to the George W. Romney building, which houses the governor’s office. And at least one police officer had used a substance similar to pepper spray during the protests.

“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 here, 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.

But the change means vastly different things depending on whom you talk to. 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.

Many opponents expressed fury over the process here as well — one that Democrats denounced as absurdly rushed, sneaky and ‘‘under cover of darkness.’’

Only Thursday, during the final days of the outgoing Legislature’s meetings, Snyder, who had long said he did not consider the legislation to be on his agenda, first announced publicly that he intended support such a measure. Later that day, language was being introduced in the chambers in the form of substituted 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.

Snyder signed the bills without fanfare Tuesday afternoon, alerting reporters of it 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 over-emphasize 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.’’