LANSING, Michigan (Reuters) - Michigan Republicans on Thursday began a drive to make the home of the U.S. auto industry the 24th “right to work” state banning mandatory union dues, setting off a confrontation with organized labor that immediately led to the arrest of protesters.
Hundreds of union workers converged on the state capital of Lansing. Majority Republicans in the state legislature introduced a draft law in the House on Thursday afternoon with a target for passage by the end of the year.
Several people were arrested while demonstrating inside the Capitol building when they tried to rush past troopers outside the Senate chambers, State Police spokesman Gene Adamczyk said.
The protests recalled the bitter fight over the last two years in Wisconsin, where Republicans voted to curb the powers of public sector unions.
The 2011 Wisconsin law sparked massive protests and unsuccessful efforts to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker.
Hundreds of people were crowded into the Michigan Capitol building and entry was cut off for safety reasons except for those conducting business, Adamczyk said. At least 2,000 people gathered on the grounds outside, he said.
“We had such a concentration of protesters in one area,” he said. “We don’t want the mob to shift and someone to go over the Rotunda railing.”
Outside, Kathleen Tronjo of Port Huron, an administrator with the Michigan Education Association union, said the schools and children would suffer under right-to-work laws.
“This is just bad policy,” Tronjo said. “They just keep taking more and more away from teachers.”
Eric Prater, a pipefitters union member from Lansing, said he expected voters to take up the issue after the legislature.
“The Republicans probably have enough votes to push it through, but it’s not going to stick,” Prater said.
Republicans hold a 64 to 46 majority in the state House, which is slated to narrow by five seats in January, when a new legislature is seated with a 59 to 51 Republican majority. Republicans hold a 26 to 12 majority in the state Senate.
Democrats said they were planning to file a lawsuit to get the building reopened and were seeking to delay further legislative action.
During the Wisconsin confrontation, some Democrats fled the state in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Republicans from having a quorum to vote on union measures they opposed.
Michigan is home to the United Auto Workers and would become the second state in the industrial U.S. heartland to adopt such a law after Indiana earlier in 2012.
Republican Governor Rick Snyder said the legislation would cover the public and private sectors, with exemptions for police and firefighters, and he hoped it would be passed before lawmakers adjourn for the holidays.
“Quite often people call it right-to-work, but I think it is a much better description to say that this is about fairness in the workplace and equality in the workplace,” Snyder said.
Snyder said he was asking for an act to be passed promptly and he would sign it when it arrived on his desk.
Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger and Republican Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said they believe there are enough votes to pass the legislation and aimed to get it done by the end of 2012. It would not take effect until possibly three months into 2013, Richardville said.
“This debate has been ongoing in Michigan for decades and specifically in this legislature for two years now,” Bolger said.
There will be separate bills covering private unions and government unions.
Snyder’s decision to pursue the legislation marks a reversal for the governor, who had said that a right-to-work law would be too divisive. On Thursday, he said Indiana’s actions earlier this year helped influence his decision.
“I think this is what is best for Michigan,” Snyder said.
Snyder acknowledged Thursday the demonstrations at the Capitol and the strong feelings people had about the issue.
“We have come to the point over the last few weeks and the last month or two where that issue was on the table whether I wanted it to be there or not,” Snyder said.
Michigan voters in November rejected a measure that would have enshrined a right to collective bargaining in the state constitution, leading to renewed calls from state lawmakers to take up the right-to-work issue before the end of the year.
“Right-to-work” laws typically allow workers to opt out of paying union dues and bar requirements that an employee must join a union to work in a certain shop.
Supporters say the laws help attract or keep businesses, while opponents say they suppress workers’ wages and benefits and are aimed at undermining the financial stability of unions.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce on Monday gave its support for a “right-to-work” law while the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, which includes both business and labor interests, last week urged Michigan not to pursue such a law.
Michigan had the fifth highest percentage of workers in the country who are union members in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham