Michigan passes 'Right-to-Work' but fight isn't over

Union members from around the country rally at the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on Right-to-Work legislation December 11, 2012 in Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Union members from around the country rally at the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on Right-to-Work legislation December 11, 2012 in Lansing, Michigan.

Update, 5:57 pm: Gov. Snyder announced minutes ago that he has signed the legislation. "Both the public sector bill and the private sector bill have been signed," Snyder told reporters at a press conference. "I have signed these bills into law."

LANSING, Mich. -- Shortly after noon on Tuesday, Michigan's Republican-controlled House of Representatives gave its final approval to the state's hotly contested "right-to-work" legislation, as thousands of the bill's opponents rallied outside. But labor activists and their allies say that the fight isn't over yet, and they're already plotting their strategy for keeping Michigan a union stronghold.

"This fight is not over by a long shot, regardless of what happens today," said Zack Pohl, the executive director of Progress Michigan.

The legislation, passed during a lame-duck session, will now go to the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, who has vowed to sign the bill into law. Previously, Snyder had said he opposed making Michigan a "right-to-work" state.

Protesters thronged the George W. Romney Building, named for Michigan's former governor, to demonstrate against the measure.

In a statement, United Steelworkers President Leo S. Gerard urged Snyder to veto the bill, or, failing that, put it forward as a general referendum.

"We urge Governor Snyder to delay his signing of the bill," said Gerard. "Let the people of Michigan debate and vote on a consequential matter that will affect all working families."

On msnbc Tuesday afternoon, Snyder told Andrea Mitchell the law can be pro union. “I’ve met a number of people that said they would like to choose to join the union or have the flexibility not to and believe they will get better accountability from unions," he said. "So in many respects it could be a positive for unions over the longer term.”

The Republican drafters of Michigan's right-to-work law tried to close off one potential avenue for undoing the legislation: Because the state constitution prohibits legislative referendums on bills that include appropriations, they inserted $1 million in appropriations into the law.

But Eddie Vale, the communications director of pro-labor PAC Workers' Voice, said that the maneuver was "too cute by half," and there's still a way to bring the measure before the people.

"Everyone has been talking about, by including appropriations, they blocked it from being put on the ballot," he said. "But that's blocked one way to put it on ballot."

Another way, both Vale and Pohl suggested, is through something called a statutory initiative. Michigan's constitution allows citizens to get measures on the ballot as initiatives, rather than referenda, by collecting petition signatures equal to at least "eight percent ... of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor at the last preceding general election at which a governor was elected shall be required."

A citizens' initiative wouldn't be an outright veto, said Pohl, but it could "enact new legislation which would effectively nullify the right-to-work bills. It's certainly one option on the table."

Pohl also said that Progress Michigan would be working with community allies to organize smaller rallies and public actions in various state representatives' districts.

Rallies like the one on Tuesday, he said, "are really powerful, and they help to send a short-term message. But the politicians here, at the end of the day, aren't necessarily going to listen to us in Lansing. What ultimately is going to be most effective is taking that message back to their home districts and making sure their constituents know how they voted on this issue."

One of the rally attendees, longtime UAW member Dwight Jackson, seemed upbeat regarding organized labor's chances of undoing any damage caused by right-to-work legislation. "I mean, okay, this is a bump in the road," he said. "We'll fix this."