DETROIT
12/11/2012 01:19 pm ET

Michigan Right To Work: Caught Off-Guard, Unions Hope To Stop Anti-Labor Law From Spreading

Thousands of union-supporting workers poured into Lansing, Mich., Tuesday to protest the passage of the state's right-to-work legislation.

The boisterous, high-profile protest aimed at Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and state Republicans is just the sort of grassroots activism where organized labor traditionally thrives. But in Michigan's case, it may be that the troops have arrived too late, as the legislation already has moved through the Republican-controlled statehouse and could be signed by the governor as early as Tuesday afternoon.

Michigan is poised to become the 24th state with a right-to-work law on its books. Such laws forbid contracts between companies and unions that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf. As unions note, the laws allow workers to opt out of supporting the union although they reap the benefits of collective bargaining. Because the laws tend to weaken unions generally, unions, as well as President Barack Obama, call the legislation "right to work for less."

Caught off-guard, unions are still reeling from Snyder's new support for the legislation, after saying previously that he didn't plan to pursue a law that unions say would cripple their collective bargaining and divide the electorate in the state.

With unions having been focused on the fiscal-cliff negotiations in Washington just days ago, the likelihood of a right-to-work law in the cradle of the American auto industry has brought unions' attention back to the Republican-led, state-level initiatives that they say endanger their long-term survival. Labor leaders are already strategizing how to keep the right-to-work legislation from spreading and emboldening business groups and GOP legislators elsewhere.

"I think our role becomes more about stopping any sense of momentum for this to happen in other places," said Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, the leading federation of labor unions. "For unions locally, we have to educate members on what this will mean to retain members. At the very national level, we see it as ... educating people on the impacts moving forward."

Many labor leaders argue that the sudden appearance of right-to-work legislation in Michigan's lame-duck session couldn't have been foreseen. The United Auto Workers union, which looms large in the state, had joined other labor groups in closed-door discussions with the governor's office in the days leading up to the controversy. Cindy Estrada, a vice president at the UAW who was at the table, told HuffPost there was no indication that Snyder intended to publicly come out in support of the law.

"It was so quickly moving," said Estrada. "The governor has been very clear that he did not want this on his agenda, that he didn’t want a divisive fight ... What happened at the end of day, outside groups like ALEC had other intentions for the state, which was to break unions, and I think they won in the end. He [Snyder] caved to special interest groups."

"Of course, if we'd known they had already made up their mind we would have been organizing more," Estrada added.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zack Pohl, executive director of the progressive political non-profit Progress Michigan, said local progressives and labor activists were "blindsided" by "the speed and the tactics used to ram this through." Because an appropriation was attached to the bill, it will not be subject to a voter referendum, per Michigan law. Many people knew nothing of the brewing legislation until a press conference Thursday morning, Pohl said.

"This wasn’t days or weeks -- this was hours," Pohl said. "They never even really bothered to make the case for why this would help the Michigan economy."

Unions have spent much of their time and resources over the previous two years fighting Republican-sponsored state legislation that would drastically reduce their collective bargaining power. The passage of a law in Wisconsin that stripped many public-sector workers of their bargaining rights led to a hard-fought but ultimately unsuccessful recall effort on Gov. Scott Walker. A similar law in Ohio was passed by legislators but overturned by voters in a victory for organized labor.

Given the political climate facing unions, some labor leaders say they weren't shocked at all by the fast developments in Michigan.

"Did somebody somehow believe Michigan was immune to this?" said Chris Townsend, spokesman for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union. "We've dealt with these pathologically anti-labor Republicans for several years, and they've proven they’ll exploit every advantage they have. And here we are."

Several union officials told HuffPost that they're facing a messaging problem with right-to-work legislation, as the term itself, commonly used on both sides of the aisle, carries such a positive connotation.

Conservatives and business groups have branded right-to-work laws as a matter of workplace freedom and economic growth, while unions have tried to make their case that the legislation hurts all workers, not just those who are unionized. A 2011 study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that right-to-work legislation does not lead to economic growth and depresses wages and benefits for workers.

In the event that Snyder signs the bill as expected, union leaders and Michigan progressives say they plan to make the governor and Republican legislators pay at the polls for its passage.

"It's clear that a number of people got in his ear with right-wing thunder," said Christopher Nulty, a spokesman for We Are Michigan, a coalition of labor and progressive groups that has sprouted to fight the legislation. "It's our feeling that Gov. Snyder will have to deal with this for the next two years. His legacy will be that he passed an incredibly partisan bill that the people of Michigan did not ask for."

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