Despite heavy protest by auto workers, the law that makes payment of union dues voluntary has passed.
LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan Senate voted to approve a right-to-work bill on Thursday that would weaken labor union power, in a move expected to spark a bitter fight with organized labor in the home of the U.S. auto industry.
The bill was passed by a 22-16 vote in the Senate, followed by cries of "shame" from protesters observing the vote. The state House passed similar legislation earlier in the day.
Governor Rick Snyder said earlier that he wanted Michigan to be the 24th state to adopt a "right-to-work" law making payment of union dues optional.
Michigan Republicans opened the drive Thursday to pass a right-to-work law that would apply to private and public sector unions except those for police and fire departments, setting off a confrontation with organized labor that immediately led to the arrest of protesters.
Right to work laws usually make the payment of union dues voluntary, even if the person is employed at a unionized workplace. Michigan has the fifth highest percentage of unionized workers among states, according to government figures.
Earlier in the day, eight people were arrested for resisting and obstructing, state police Inspector Gene Adamczyk said. The Capitol was temporarily closed because of safety concerns.
Chanting, whistling activists flooded the building and grounds as Snyder and his allies sought quick votes on measures that would prohibit unions from collecting fees from workers who decline union representation. Opponents say right-to-work laws drain unions of money and weaken their ability to bargain for good wages and benefits. Supporters insist the policy is good for the economy and job creation.
The bills were brought to the floors of both chambers for debate Thursday afternoon.
"This is all about taking care of the hard-working workers in Michigan, being pro-worker and giving them freedom to make choices," Snyder said during a news conference with House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Minority Leader Randy Richardville.
"The goal isn't to divide Michigan, it is to bring Michigan together," Snyder said.
But the decision to push forward in the waning days of the Legislature's lame-duck session infuriated outnumbered Democrats, who resorted to parliamentary maneuvers to slow action but were powerless to block the bills that were expected to be introduced Thursday.
Protesters waved placards and chanted slogans such as "Union buster" and "Right-to-work has got to go." Adamczyk said the troopers used chemical spray after the people refused to obey orders to stop.
He estimated that about 2,500 visitors were inside the Capitol, where their shouts reverberated off stone halls and frequently could be heard inside the ornate chambers.
After repeatedly insisting during his first two years in office that right-to-work was not on his agenda, Snyder reversed course Thursday, a month after voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have barred such measures under the state constitution.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Snyder said he had kept the issue at arm's length while pursuing other programs to bolster the state economy. But he said circumstances had pushed the matter to the forefront.
"It is a divisive issue," he acknowledged. "But it was already being divisive over the past few weeks, so let's get this resolved. Let's reach a conclusion that's in the best interests of all."
Also influencing his decision, he said, were reports that some 90 companies had decided to locate in Indiana since that state adopted right-to-work legislation. "That's thousands of jobs, and we want to have that kind of success in Michigan," he said.
Snyder and the GOP leaders insisted the legislation was not meant to weaken unions or collective bargaining, saying it would make unions more responsive to their members.
Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer said she was "livid."
"These guys have lied to us all along the way," she said. "They are pushing through the most divisive legislation they could come up with and the dark of night, at the end of a lame-duck session and then they're going to hightail it out of town. It's cowardly."