LANSING, Michigan (Reuters) - Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation on Tuesday that makes Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, the 24th U.S. state to enact a "right-to-work" law that limits the rights of labor unions in the workplace.
The signing marked a whirlwind six days from introduction to final approval of the legislation, but a day that Republicans said was years in the planning.
Snyder, a former computer executive and venture capitalist, spoke with Reuters on Wednesday about his evolution on the controversial legislation, which bans mandatory union membership or the paying of dues for private and public sector workers in Michigan except police and firefighters.
The Michigan law specifically preserves a right to collective bargaining, but opponents argue that such laws undermine a union's stability and, therefore, the ability to seek better wages, benefits and working conditions.
Q: What was the moment that took 'right-to-work' from 'not on my agenda' to 'on my agenda'?
Snyder: "Let me give you a little additional background why I said it was not on my agenda originally. It is an issue that I had feelings about. I said I would sign it, if you go back to the earliest of history.
I said it wasn't on my agenda because if you look at it, it's only seventeen-and-a-half percent of our workforce that is unionized. So for over 80 percent of our citizens, this isn't a relevant issue. So we had much higher priorities.
We needed to do tax reform, balance our budget, education reform. Just a very long list of issues. My view was let's deal with those and why go into a very divisive subject matter when it affects a relatively limited subset of our population, a significant number, but not a huge percentage.
I'd taken that (position) consistently for a long time and then summertime came and during the summertime, labor leaders decided they wanted to put a ballot proposal together.
They started collecting signatures to do something that became Proposal 2. They called it collective bargaining, but if you really looked at it, it was a massive overreach into Michigan's constitution. And, at the time, in the summer, I said, 'Please don't go forward with that. Please don't finish your petition drive and ask to put this on the ballot.'"
Q: Who did you tell that to?
Snyder: "Actually, I did that in an open meeting. That was a meeting between labor and management. There's a labor-management council that has both company people and labor people and I went to give them a talk and I specifically brought this up on purpose, to say, 'Please don't go forward with this because you're bringing up a divisive topic overall which is the whole topic of labor affairs that is first going to be on the collective bargaining issue.'"
Q: After that meeting, what was your feeling of what would happen?
Snyder: "I was concerned that they were going to continue, but, again, in good faith, I wanted to make sure I said my piece. And Proposal 2 was soundly defeated. The citizens spoke that it was an overreach into our constitution.
But, as soon as the (November 6) election ended, the dialogue on 'right-to-work' just really ramped up. So the divisiveness was starting to go on ... ."
"It had become a divisive issue. If the divisiveness was going on, my view is, part of being a good leader is (to say) 'OK, let's do something about it,' rather than to stand on the sidelines and watch people fight. OK. Now it is appropriate to say it is on my agenda. I came out a week ago or so and said it is on my agenda.
Q: What do you think about the way Senator Patrick Colbeck and Representative Mike Shirkey have gone about building a coalition for "right-to-work" legislation in Michigan?
Snyder: "I appreciate that, but to be open, I actually didn't encourage them to go ahead. I was aware.
That goes to part of the discussion point here which is to say this didn't pop out of the blue. 'Right-to-work' has been an active issue in Michigan for years. It's been relatively active in the last two years. In the last few weeks, it's been extremely active.
So, when people say, 'Did people have their chance to have their say,' I don't know how you can be a Michigander and not have had awareness that this was an issue or the ability to talk to a legislator if you desired to do so."
Q: When was the last time you spoke with United Auto Workers President Bob King?
Snyder: "I probably spoke to him (last) Wednesday."
Q: Had you already made the decision to go ahead with legislation?
Snyder: "I can't remember precisely which conversation. But I was pretty open to Bob, telling him during this process we were having dialogue.
The unions played a really important role in Michigan's history. And people flocked to join the unions in the last century, the middle of the last century.
You fast-forward to today, the way I look at it is shouldn't they present the same value proposition, and if they do, people should be excited to join, and if they don't, should they be forced to give them financial contributions to contribute to the cost of that if they don't see any value?
I don't believe they should be forced to do that. I believe they should have the opportunity to do that when they see value."
Editing by David Bailey, Mary Milliken and Paul Simao