The Michigan state legislature approved two right-to-work bills Tuesday over the din of a thousands-strong protest outside its walls and a strong Democratic resistance within them.
Now that the Republican-controlled Michigan House has passed the two bills they will go to the desk Gov. Rick Snyder, who is expected to sign them into law Wednesday.
Proponents of the legislation argue the right-to-work measures will attract business to the state and provide workers more say in how their paychecks are spent.
"This is about freedom, fairness and equality," House Speaker Jase Bolger said of the bills. "These are basic American rights—rights that should unite us."
The bills' passage deals a significant blow to unions in a traditionally pro-labor state known as the birthplace of one of the country's most powerful unions, the United Auto Workers. The bills allow private-sector workers and government workers, respectively, to opt out of paying dues to the unions which negotiate on their behalf. Police and firefighters are exempt from the bill.
While the chamber voted, an estimated 10,000 protestors demonstrated in the state's capitol, some in the gallery overlooking the House chambers, others elsewhere in the building or on the grounds outside. Earlier in the day, two local school districts closed down after teachers called out to protest the bills' passing, according to Fox News. The crowd chanted and criticized the legislature's Republican leadership throughout the day.
From earlier today, these large inflatable rats are supposed to represent Snyder, Richardville and DeVos. twitter.com/LoriAHiggins/s…— Lori Higgins (@LoriAHiggins) December 11, 2012
The bills' passage is a symbolic victory for pro-business groups, as Michigan has the fifth-highest percentage of workers who are union members in the country and is home to nearly 700 manufacturing plants, according to Reuters. Once signed, the bills will make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state, and the latest to limit union power in the Midwest—traditionally an organized labor stronghold. In 2011 Wisconsin state lawmakers passed legislation that limited union power, and in Ohio similar attempts narrowly failed, both amid strong opposition.
Michigan's protests, though mostly limited to a few days, thus far have resulted in at least eight confirmed arrests. The state police used pepper spray and tear gas on the crowd, according to The Detroit News.
The opposition was not limited to demonstrations. Prominent Democrats such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Michigan Sen. Carl Levin spoke out against the bill in its final days. President Barack Obama visited an auto plant outside Detroit Monday to speak out against the proposals.
"These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics," Obama said. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."