The Michigan Senate has passed right-to-work legislation for private sector workers, following earlier approval by the House.
The measure passed on a 22-16 vote Thursday after hours of impassioned debate. Four Republicans joined all 12 Democrats in opposition.
House members voted 58-52 to approve the measure Thursday afternoon strictly along party lines.
Union activists repeatedly shouted protests from the gallery and cheered Democrats who denounced the measure.
The bill would prohibit unions from collecting fees from nonunion workers, which opponents say would weaken organized labor's ability to bargain for good wages while supporters say it would boost jobs.
Gov. Rick Snyder and GOP legislative leaders announced earlier Thursday they would put right-to-work on a fast track.
Still to come is legislation dealing with public-sector workers.
Snyder says it's about freedom for workers and is not meant to harm unions or collective bargaining. "It's a divisive issue, you can see what's going on outside," said Snyder. He said it wasn't on his agenda previously because there were more pressing issues to deal with, but he says now is the time to move.
Snyder released a YouTube video, which is viewable above, explaining his proposal.
The legislation will cover both private and public sector workers, although an exception will be granted for police and firefighters.
"Today it's time to step up and make some decisions, it's time for a call," said Snyder. "I'm asking for a Work Place Equality Act, to be enacted in the next few days."
During a round table discussion on Thursday, Snyder said the Act would apply to less than 20 percent of workers in the state and that there are much more important issues that affect more people.
Throngs of labor supporters are chanting "Hey Hey, Ho Ho! Right to Work has got to go" at the state Capitol. Several media outlets are reporting that some protestors were arrested and pepper sprayed by police.
"It's not fair for the workers, it's not fair for the working class," said Eric Kozel to TV5's Andrew Keller on Wednesday night.
Kozel is a union member at Flint Tool and Dye. He said union rights are in his blood.
"My grandfather was a sit-down striker, and to be honest with you, he fought hard for me to have these rights and I plan to fight hard so my grandchildren can have them too," said Kozel.
Kozel joined 2,000 union members who chanted their objections during the State House and Senate sessions, worrying right to work could be a union-busting technique.
"There's nothing like being in the union. Nothing like it. It's the greatest thing in the world," said Mike Slinger, a union member who works in Lansing.
The controversial right to work topic sparked on Tuesday when Gov. Rick Snyder said he is willing to put the idea on the table. Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger is a Republican pushing for the legislation. Bolger's press secretary, Ari Adler, said this helps keep Michigan a viable option for businesses.
"How do we keep Michigan competitive so we can have more jobs and opportunities for people to stay here and raise their families," Adler said.
Wendy Day is a member of the Michigan Education Association. She is a union member but went to the rally in support of right to work legislation.
"I'm sick of my dues going to political causes I don't agree with. I think we need freedom to work in Michigan and I think we need it now," said Day.
But Rep. Stacy Erwin-Oakes, a Democrat from Saginaw, said not so fast. "I think it is very negligent on our part if we were to move this package of bills," said Erwin-Oakes.
Michigan has the fifth highest percentage of union members in the country. Twenty-three states currently have right to work laws in place. Michigan would be number 24 if the legislation is signed by Snyder.
Michigan House Democrats issued this statement on the right to work debate Thursday:
"House Democrats are disappointed in the tactics that the House Republicans are employing at this time with access to the floor. The House Dems are standing firm when it comes to protecting the middle class families in Michigan. Governor Snyder and Legislative Republicans would rather cave into special interests and institute Washington DC style politics by pushing the toxic and divisive partisan wish list of the extremists within their own party than create jobs or fight for fair wages and benefits for ALL residents."
Gov. Rick Snyder's office issued this statement on the proposed legislation on Thursday:
Gov. Rick Snyder, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville and Speaker of the House Jase Bolger today announced that the Legislature will move forward with legislation to enact freedom-to-work laws.
Freedom-to-work laws will improve the lives of countless Michigan families by restoring workplace fairness and equality for all workers. In addition, the laws will attract more new jobs and new career opportunities for Michigan workers.
"We respect the fact that the freedom-to-work issue evokes strong emotions among supporters and opponents," said Snyder, who supports collective bargaining. "That's why we've focused on other reforms that are so critical to Michigan's turnaround. But with this issue now on the table, it's time to embrace the benefits that come with giving working men and women the freedom they deserve. The values of freedom, fairness and equality in the workplace should unite us all. And as states fiercely compete for jobs, this legislation will ensure that investors know Michigan is the place to do business."
The three leaders agreed that it is wrong for Michigan workers to be forced to join or provide financial support to any organization they do not wish to join. They also agreed, however, that collective bargaining is an important right that should remain and workers should have a right to join a union if that's the best decision for them and their families.
"I have long been a supporter of collective bargaining, but whether you support collective bargaining or not, it should be the worker's freedom to choose whether or not he or she belongs to a union," said Richardville, R-Monroe. "There has been a lot of talk and discussion on this issue, but what this ultimately comes down to is the individual worker. I support Michigan workers and I support their freedom to choose."
The pro-worker legislation that will start moving through the Legislature today will ensure fairness for workers while making Michigan more competitive for attracting new jobs and career opportunities.
"This issue has been discussed and debated for decades in Michigan and across the country. It's time we restored the freedom of workers to the workplace in Michigan," said Bolger, R-Marshall. "Collective bargaining and unions have played an important role in Michigan's history and have an important role to play in its future. But this is about Michigan workers – the men and women who work hard every day to support their families. Unions will still have the freedom to make their case, but now workers will have the freedom to make their choice."
The legislation preserves the status afforded to police and firefighters under Public Act 312.
It is the intention of Senate Majority Leader Richardville and Speaker Bolger to complete work on the bills and present them to the governor for his review by the end of the currently scheduled legislative session.
Stay with WNEM.com and TV5 as we cover this story in the coming days.
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