Last updated: December 11, 2012 8:31 pm

Unions fight ‘right to work’ law

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Michigan, home of the United Auto Workers’ union, became the latest battleground in the fight to curb union rights after the Republican governor signed laws designed to neuter an already weakened labour movement in the state.

The speedy passage of two laws that would prevent workers from having to pay mandatory dues to their unions in the public and private sector, which was signed by Governor Rick Snyder after it was passed in the state legislature earlier in the afternoon, dealt a serious blow to the financial and political power of unions in the state.

Their passage sparked angry protests in front of that statehouse reminiscent of demonstrations against similar measures in Wisconsin. The development threatened, in the words of John Dingell, the veteran Democratic lawmaker from Michigan, to set the state on a course of one of the “longest, most bitter and angry battles that we have seen over the rights of working men and women to belong to unions”.

Mr Snyder’s passage of the laws - which were introduced and passed in one week over the opposition of Democrats - was a major victory for the conservative activists, like the Koch brothers, who have supported such legislation in other midwest states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

It will test Barack Obama’s allegiance to the labour movement that helped re-elect him. Last year, the US president steered clear of involvement in a labour battle in Wisconsin. But in a trip to Michigan on Monday, the president denounced the proposed law as hurting middle class workers.

Pro-union organisers will try to emulate a successful campaign in Ohio last year, when opposition to a similar anti-union initiative collected enough signatures to put the law directly to voters in a referendum, where it was reversed.

“The accurate comparison [to future action against the law] is Ohio because we are talking about laws that help protect and build the middle class. It does not have popular support in this state,” said an official with We are Michigan, a new coalition of unions.

Mr Snyder’s plans took union officials by surprise, because the governor had previously testified that so-called “right to work” legislation was divisive and he would not pursue it in 2012.

Although the big three [carmakers] are maintaining public neutrality, they continue to highlight that this is a divisive issue and they are focused on other priorities that would promote Michigan’s competitiveness at this critical time and support jobs and economic growth

- John Dingell, Democratic congressman from Michigan

A union official said the sudden change reflected the fact that Mr Snyder would be unable to pass the legislation after January, when the state Senate will lose some Republican seats. Unions said they believed the Koch brothers and other Republican donors who helped fund the Wisconsin anti-union effort were the driving force behind the move.

“Right to Work is about being pro-worker and giving workers freedom to choose who they associate with,” Mr Snyder tweeted on Tuesday.

It was a victory for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative campaign group funded by the Koch brothers, which said before the law was signed that its passage would be “the shot heard around the world for workplace freedom” and would “pave the way for right to work in states across our nation.”

Detroit carmakers appear to be steering clear of the fight.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, the big three US domestically owned carmakers, all have close relationships with the UAW.

The union helped to persuade its members to accept significant cuts in pension and other entitlements and agreed to new, low pay rates for some new workers during the industry’s painful 2009 restructuring. Many car plants around Detroit display the union’s logo as prominently as that of the plant owner.

Chrysler said it had taken no position on the law. Ford, the US’s second-biggest domestic carmaker by sales, said it was focused on working with all its partners, including the UAW. “We remain neutral on right-to-work legislation,” it said. GM was not immediately available.

Mr Dingell said: “Although the big three are maintaining public neutrality, they continue to highlight that this is a divisive issue and they are focused on other priorities that would promote Michigan’s competitiveness at this critical time and support jobs and economic growth.”

The Chamber of Commerce applauded the move by Mr Snyder: “Today, Michigan took another step towards restoring its competitiveness by making Freedom-to-Work a reality. The law will bring individual choice to workers regarding union membership, bring accountability to unions so that they are no longer able to take workers’ financial support for granted, and signals to employers that Michigan is open for business.”

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