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'Right-to-work' bills face critical vote

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

There’s plenty of drama expected this week in Lansing as Republicans in the Legislature appear ready to send to Governor Rick Snyder bills that would make Michigan a so-called “right-to-work” state.

The next chapter in this drama will open this morning with a conference call between a judge and the litigants in a lawsuit that’s trying to stop or at least slow down the “right-to-work” momentum in Lansing.

Union activist Robert Davis filed the lawsuit late last week against the state House of Representatives. He wants the judge to rule the Legislature violated the state’s open meetings law last Thursday when it continued to meet and vote as the Capitol was closed for several hours to keep out demonstrators.

“And that any and all votes taken shall be invalidated, and for the courts to declare that individuals cannot be denied entry into an open and public meeting,” says Davis.

Davis hopes the judge will grant an emergency hearing on his lawsuit today or early tomorrow. He says if his House lawsuit succeeds, he’ll sue the state Senate. Davis says his ultimate goal is to buy enough time to stop legislation with an overtly partisan purpose.

“It’s only to destroy the unions and try to destroy the Democratic Party, who are in large part supported by the unions and their members,” says Davis.

“The thing for them is, nothing has to change,” says Scott Hagerstrom, with the Michigan chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which supports “right to work.” He appeared over the weekend on the Michigan Public Television show “Off The Record.”

“They can continue to belong to the union, continue to collectively bargain, and if the unions do a good job, if they offer a good service to their customers, to the people they represent, people will continue to pay dues,” says Hagerstrom.

The fact is union membership has typically dropped off in the other 23 states that have adopted “right-to-work” laws.

Unions are already organizing protests, beginning today and lasting through whenever the Legislature votes. The Legislature’s next meeting is tomorrow.

Union leaders and Democrats say they’re not operating under any illusions about their chances when it comes to stopping a right-to-work law from going to Governor Snyder’s desk, or stopping him from signing it.

“We know this is a longshot,” says Mark Schauer, a union activist and a former Democratic legislator and congressman.

He says the protests are designed in part to prod the Legislature to make a “right-to-work” law subject to voter approval by either putting it directly on the ballot, or at least removing an appropriation that would make the law referendum-proof. It’s a tactic Republicans in Lansing have used on other controversial laws over the past two years to make sure voters cannot reject them the way they toppled the state’s emergency manager law last month.

“That’s the least that this Legislature could do and a message that this governor could send is that, if they feel this is good policy, let the public have its say on it,” says Schauer.

Schauer now works for a labor-employer training cooperative. He says unions in Michigan do a lot more than negotiate contracts, and he says they are a big part of Michigan’s economy in ways people don’t see. For example, Schauer says his group helps train the skilled workers the governor says Michigan badly needs right now. He’s sitting inside a mobile training center.  It’s a very big trailer with space for desks and laptop computers. He says it’s used for training and to do worksite safety testing required by the federal government and the businesses he works with appreciate that.

“They’re very concerned about just what this will mean to our ability to fund our apprenticeship and training programs,” says Schauer.

The trailer is parked in front of the state Capitol, where Schauer and other union activists press their case to whoever walks by. It’s quiet right now. It won’t be tomorrow.

President Obama visits Michigan today. The trip to a Daimler factory in Redford Township near Detroit was scheduled before the “right-to-work’ controversy took off.

Governor Snyder is expected to greet the president upon his arrival. The Democratic president is on record opposing Right to Work laws, and just might have something to say about it when Snyder greets him today as he steps off Air Force One.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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