Michigan lawmakers gave final approval to historic anti-union legislation on Tuesday as thousands of workers and activists joined in rowdy protests at the state Capitol in Lansing.
The Republican-led House passed a bill by a vote of 58-51 that would make payment of union dues voluntary for public workers such as teachers even though unions advocate on their behalf. The House went on to pass a similar bill for private-sector workers by a 58-52 vote.
Democratic lawmakers attempted to have both votes reconsidered, but their efforts failed.
Meanwhile, about 10,000 protesters gathered outside government offices in the state Capitol, chanting “shame on you” and demanding that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder show his face.
Snyder, a Republican, is expected to sign the legislation into law this week, making Michigan the 24th state to adopt so-called “right-to-work” laws and dealing a major blow to the labor movement in a state steeped in rich union history.
Republicans and right-to-work proponents argue that workers should not be required to pay union dues, but labor advocates point out that all workers benefit from collective bargaining on their behalf regardless of whether they pay dues. Unions and President Obama have referred to right to work as “the right to work for less money.”
“This is historic, and enormous at that,” said Wendy Thompson, the retired president of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 235 in Detroit. “How much more do we have to take? This has been going on forever.”
Michigan is the birthplace of the historic UAW, but the union has lost membership and prominence as auto manufacturing has declined in Michigan and nearby states in recent decades.
Thompson called the Michigan legislature “anti-democratic” for pushing the anti-union bills through during a lame-duck session.
Protests and rallies have raged in the Capitol for days, and on December 6, police blasted demonstrators with pepper spray and arrested eight protesters after they attempted to rush the Michigan state Senate while lawmakers were pushing the anti-union legislation.
Similar clashes erupted on Tuesday, and the Michigan State Police reported on Twitter that pepper spray was used to “gain compliance” when a crowd grabbed a trooper and would not release its hold.
Police threatened to pepper spray a crowd attempting to rush a government building but did not use the spray after the crowd complied, according to the state police. Two individuals who entered the building were arrested, but it remains unclear if they face charges.
Liz Rodriguez, a spokesperson for a graduate student employees union under the American Federation of Teachers, described the mood of the protests as “feisty.”
Rodriguez said that, considering Lansing is not Madison, Wisconsin, where labor protests shut down the Capitol for weeks last year, Tuesday’s protests were “pretty amazing.”
“There is a huge sense of solidarity,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not optimistic about the bills, but we’re optimistic about fighting in the future.”
Thompson is also looking toward the future.
“There has to be a discussion occurring about where we are going from here,” Thompson said. “Unions have to become stronger on the shop floor, in the workplace.”