The “right to work” effort illustrates the power of Republicans to use state legislative majorities won in 2010 to pursue their policy preferences, even after losing a bitter presidential election.
The defeat is devastating for organized labor, which for decades has been waging an uphill battle against declining membership and dwindling influence.
But it also strikes at the roots of a Democratic Party that relied on unions for financial support and to marshal voters for President Obama’s reelection.
The new law comes nearly two years after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) began a push to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees. That effort ignited huge protests from union and liberal activists and triggered a failed effort to recall Walker.
At the same time, a well-funded campaign to curtail union power swept through several other Republican-controlled states in the industrial Midwest.
Indiana followed Wisconsin and passed laws that limited the reach of organized labor. Lawmakers in Ohio also passed legislation that curtailed collective bargaining rights of public sector unions, but voters overturned it.
In crafting Michigan’s measure, supporters avoided some tactical errors from earlier efforts. The measure is attached to an appropriations bill, which exempts it from being taken to a referendum. And it excludes firefighters and police, groups that were critical in overturning Ohio’s law.
Proponents call their win in Michigan especially significant because the state is the birthplace of one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, the United Auto Workers. Founded in 1935, the union organized auto workers, winning wages and benefits that transformed assembly-line work into solid middle-class jobs.
“This is really a message to every other state that is a closed union shop, that if you do it here you can do it everywhere else,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity. The group is supported by industrialists Charles and David Koch, billionaires who have pushed for anti-union and other conservative measures.
Supporters predicted that the new law will be a boon to economic growth in an era of global competition. But unions say the measure will starve them of money, weakening their ability to bargain for their members and undercutting their ability to support Democratic political candidates, who typically back their causes.
Labor leaders and Democratic state legislators said they had requested that Obama weigh in on the labor fight. They asked the White House to issue a public statement last week declaring the president’s opposition to the legislation, and for him to refer to the labor fight in his remarks Monday during a visit to Redford, Mich.