The powerful United Automobile Workers sees the measure as a threat to its existence at a time when the U.S. auto industry is rebounding. Thousands of union protesters on Thursday stormed the State Capitol in Lansing and clashed with police as they sounded their opposition by chanting and blowing whistles.
For conservative sponsors, including a group financed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, Michigan is a new frontier in the wake of bitter legislative battles in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. After failing to oust Democrats from power at the national level in 2012, conservatives are turning anew to state legislatures to push anti-union laws and other measures.
President Obama will wade into the midst of the Michigan debate Monday when he visits a Detroit area auto plant in a state he won resoundingly in part because of the support of the UAW. A White House spokesman said the president opposes right-to-work legislation but could not say whether Obama plans to address it directly in his remarks Monday.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) abruptly switched sides this week after saying for the past two years that legislation limiting unions was too divisive. Snyder announced that he would sign a union-limiting bill if it comes to his desk as early as next week, prompting accusations that he had bowed to pressure from the political right.
“The right-to-work discussion was getting escalated on all sides and it became a divisive issue. It was continuing to grow to the point that it is on my agenda,” Snyder said in an interview Friday. “I believe in collective bargaining,” the governor added, but he said that “workers should have the freedom to choose” whether to join a union.
If the measure passes, UAW President Bob King said, the union would pursue options to recall state legislators and, perhaps, Snyder — potentially thrusting Michigan into the kind of political turmoil that gripped Wisconsin earlier this year.
“They didn’t learn from the election,” King said. “The reason President Obama won and so many of the senators won is because of overreaching by the extreme right of the Republican Party, and this is another example of them doing it.”
The Michigan fight carries heavy symbolism for the national labor movement, which has endured declining membership and political setbacks for decades. Republicans have successfully passed measures in the past two years limiting union power in Indiana and Wisconsin, while a similar effort in Ohio was overturned by a public initiative.
“Michigan was the heart of the Rust Belt. It was the center of the United Auto Workers, and the UAW represented the highest aspirations of American unionism, so for Michigan to be considering becoming a so-called right to work state is itself quite a statement about the plight of organized labor,” said Robert Reich, a former labor secretary under Bill Clinton.