Republican Governor Rick Snyder said on Thursday he wants Michigan to be the 24th state to adopt a "right-to-work" law making payment of union dues voluntary, setting up a confrontation with organized labor in the home of the U.S. auto industry.
Hundreds of unionized workers converged on the state capital of Lansing as majority Republicans in the legislature were set to introduce the legislation on Thursday. The raucous protests recalled the bitter fight over the last two years in Wisconsin, where Republicans voted to curb the powers of public sector unions.
The Wisconsin law in 2011 sparked massive protests and unsuccessful efforts to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker.
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.
Snyder said the legislation would cover the public and private sectors, with exemptions for police and fire, 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 through the legislature 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 year's end.
About 400 union workers demonstrated in the state capital on Wednesday and auto workers planned more protests on Thursday and to lobby state lawmakers to oppose right-to-work proposals.
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.
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 worker 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.
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