* Governor signs bills into law
* "The day Michigan freed its workers," supporter says
* Opponents vow to overturn the laws
* Laws may take effect in April
By Bernie Woodall
LANSING, Mich., Dec 11 Michigan enacted a ban on
mandatory union membership on Tuesday, dealing a stunning blow
to organized labor in the state that is home to U.S. automakers
and the symbol of industrial labor in the United States.
As more than 12,000 unionized workers and supporters
protested at the Capitol in Lansing, the Republican-led state
House of Representatives gave final approval to a pair of
"right-to-work" bills covering public- and private-sector
Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed the bills into law as
soon as they reached his desk, completing in a few days a
campaign to make Michigan the 24th U.S. state to prohibit unions
from requiring employees to join and contribute dues.
"I view this as an opportunity to stand up for Michigan's
workers, to be pro-worker," Snyder told a news conference after
he signed the bills.
The laws will take effect 90 days after the end of the
legislative session, which means they will probably come into
force sometime in April. Existing union contracts will not be
changed until they expire, according to a provision of the laws.
In a rapid turn of events, Michigan moved from being a
bastion of union influence to joining states, mostly in the
South, that have weakened local protections for unions.
The Teamsters union national president, James Hoffa, whose
father, Jimmy Hoffa, was one of the nation's most famous labor
leaders until he disappeared in 1975 in Michigan, denounced
Republican leaders in a speech to the protesters.
"Let me tell the governor and all those elected officials
who vote for this shameful, divisive bill - there will be
repercussions," Hoffa said, adding the Republicans could be
defeated in the next election.
Unions have accused Snyder of caving in to wealthy
Republican business owners and political donors such as the Koch
brothers, owners of an energy and trading conglomerate, and
Richard DeVos, the co-founder of Michigan-based Amway.
Snyder, a former computer company executive who had said
"right-to-work" legislation was too divisive for Michigan,
changed course last week and announced his support for it.
While labor leaders decried the legislation, Republican
Representative Lisa Lyons said during the debate in the House
that such laws were not an attack on unions.
"This is the day Michigan freed its workers," she said.
Opponents argue that the measures undermine a basic union
tenet of bargaining collectively with employers for better
wages, benefits and working conditions. They also allow workers
to opt out of a union, potentially reducing membership.
By weakening unions, Republicans also could hurt the
Democratic Party, which traditionally receives a significant
portion of its funding and grass-roots support from unions.
Supporters of right-to-work measures say some unions have
become too rigid and workers should be given a choice of whether
to join. They also say a more flexible labor market encourages
business investment, citing "right-to-work" states where some
foreign automakers have put plants rather than in Michigan.
CRIES OF 'SHAME'
The measures were approved to cries of "shame" from
protesters inside the Capitol building, which was closed to
visitors when it reached capacity of 2,200, Michigan State
Police Inspector Gene Adamczyk said.
An estimated 10,000 more people demonstrated outside in cold
and snowy conditions, including members of the United Auto
Workers union, and teachers, who shut down several schools in
the state to attend the rally.
A few protesters were ejected from the Capitol after they
chanted slogans from the gallery during the debate. Protesters
tore down two tents set up for supporters of "right-to-work" on
the grounds of the Capitol. Adamczyk said six people were
arrested after scuffling with officers.
A mixture of pepper spray and tear gas was used on one
person, Adamczyk said, although Reuters journalists also saw
protesters sprayed with a substance at a government building
near the Capitol.
The protests recalled big rallies in Wisconsin nearly two
years ago when Republicans voted to curb public-sector unions.
Wisconsin never tried to pass "right-to-work" bills.
But Indiana earlier this year became the first state in the
industrial Midwest to approve "right-to-work" legislation and
several other states are watching the Michigan action closely.
LEGAL CHALLENGES LOOM
Republicans in Michigan were also emboldened by the defeat
in the November election of a ballot initiative backed by unions
that would have enshrined the right to collective bargaining in
the state constitution.
Michigan is home of the heavily unionized U.S. auto
industry, with some 700 manufacturing plants in the state. The
state has the fifth highest percentage of workers who are union
members, at 17.5 percent
The Detroit area is headquarters for General Motors Co
, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler, which is
majority-owned by Fiat SpA.
The UAW was founded in Michigan after a 1932 protest at a
Ford plant in Dearborn left five people dead, increasing public
sympathy for industrial workers during the Great Depression and
leading to national legislation protecting unions.
Major automakers, which secured concessions from the UAW
after nearly going bankrupt during the recession of 2008-09,
were careful not to take sides publicly in the fight.
All of the so-called Big Three domestic automakers said they
were "neutral" on "right-to-work," even though the Michigan
Chamber of Commerce strongly supports it.
"At Ford, we are focused on working with all our partners,
including the UAW," the company said in a statement on Tuesday.
Democrats and unions have vowed to challenge the new laws in
the courts, to try to overturn them in a ballot initiative and
possibly oust through recall elections some Republicans who
voted for the measures.
Democratic Representative Douglas Geiss said "right-to-work"
laws would lead to a resumption of the battles surrounding the
creation of unions decades ago.
"There will be fights on the shop floor if many workers
announce they will not pay union dues," Geiss said.