LANSING (AP) - In a dizzyingly short time span, Republicans have converted Michigan from a seemingly impregnable fortress of organized labor into a right-to-work state, leaving outgunned Democrats and union activists with little recourse but to shake their fists and seek retribution at the ballot box.
The state House swiftly approved two bills reducing unions' strength Tuesday, one dealing with private-sector workers and the other with public employees, as thousands of furious protesters at the state Capitol roared in vain. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the measures into law within hours, calling them "pro-worker and pro-Michigan."
"Workers deserve the right to decide for themselves whether union membership benefits them," Snyder said. "Introducing freedom-to-work in Michigan will contribute to our state's economic comeback while preserving the roles of unions and collective bargaining."
House Speaker Jase Bolger exulted after the vote that Michigan's future "has never been brighter," while Democrats and union activists said workers had been doomed to ever-lower living standards. Lacking enough votes to block the measures or force a statewide referendum, opponents set their sights on the 2014 election.
"Passing these bills is an act of war on Michigan's middle class, and I hope the governor and the Republican legislators are ready for the fight that is about to ensue," said Gretchen Whitmer, the Senate Democratic leader.
As 1 of 24 states with right-to-work laws, Michigan will prohibit requiring nonunion employees to pay unions for negotiating contracts, representing them in grievances and other services. Supporters say the laws give workers freedom of association and promote job creation, while critics insist the real intent is to drain unions of funds need to bargain effectively.
Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) voted against the legislation.
"From when I first ran in 2010, it's been very clear the majority of my constituents don't support this," he said, noting the 108th district he represents has a lot of support for unions.
After doing research and reading all the facts on right-to-work, McBroom said he felt compelled to vote 'no' on the issue.
"The folks that support this are very sincere this is a good thing for the state of Michigan," he said, while noting he does not think the legislation will bear all the benefits supporters think it will.
"I also heard from many employers throughout the district who were very satisfied with the relationships they have with the unions and they didn't want this either," he said.
Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), who also voted against the right-to-work legislation was unavailable for comment this morning as he was testifying in the House Judiciary Committee.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) released a statement of his opposition to the legislation.
In the statement Levin noted his prior criticism of Gov. Snyder for his "sudden, last-minute change of position" regarding right-to-work.
"His switch directly contradicts his promise to avoid divisive issues and his promise to bring Michiganians together," he said.
Levin said Snyder is misleading Michigan voters by saying the legislation is designed to protect workers from being required to join a union or to "give workers freedom to choose who they associate with," protections he said are already in current law.
"For millions of Michigan workers, this is no ordinary debate," said Levin. "It's an assault on their right to have their elected bargaining agent negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions, and to have all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them."
He said the governor's reversal and "misleading language" are not about workers, but about politics.
"It is deeply unfortunate that the governor and other Republicans in Lansing have put politics ahead of the collective bargaining rights of Michigan workers," said Levin.
Labor has suffered a series of setbacks in Rust Belt states since the 2010 election propelled tea party conservatives to power across much of the region. Even so, the ruthless efficiency with which Republicans prevailed on right-to-work was breathtaking in Michigan, birthplace of the United Auto Workers, where unions have long been political titans.
The seeds were planted two years ago with the election of Snyder, a former venture capitalist and CEO who pledged to make the state more business-friendly, and GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate. They have chipped away repeatedly at union power, even as Snyder insisted the big prize - right-to-work - was "not on my agenda."
Fearing the governor wouldn't be able to restrain his allies in the Legislature, labor waged a pre-emptive strike with a ballot initiative known as Proposal 2 that would have made right-to-work laws unconstitutional. It was soundly defeated in last month's election, and Snyder said Tuesday the unions had miscalculated by bringing the issue to center stage.