In a dizzyingly short time span, Republicans have converted Michigan from a seemingly impregnable fortress of organized labour into a right-to-work state, leaving outgunned Democrats and union activists with little recourse but to shake their fists and seek retribution at the ballot box.
The state House swiftly approved two bills reducing unions' strength Tuesday, one dealing with private-sector workers and the other with public employees, as thousands of furious protesters at the state capitol roared in vain. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the measures into law within hours, calling them "pro-worker and pro-Michigan."
"Workers deserve the right to decide for themselves whether union membership benefits them," Snyder said. "Introducing freedom-to-work in Michigan will contribute to our state's economic comeback while preserving the roles of unions and collective bargaining."
House Speaker Jase Bolger exulted after the vote that Michigan's future "has never been brighter," while Democrats and union activists said workers had been doomed to ever-lower living standards. Lacking enough votes to block the measures or force a statewide referendum, opponents set their sights on the 2014 election.
"Passing these bills is an act of war on Michigan's middle class, and I hope the governor and the Republican legislators are ready for the fight that is about to ensue," said Gretchen Whitmer, the Senate Democratic leader.
As 1 of 24 states with right-to-work laws, Michigan will prohibit requiring nonunion employees to pay unions for negotiating contracts, representing them in grievances and other services. Supporters say the laws give workers freedom of association and promote job creation, while critics insist the real intent is to drain unions of funds need to bargain effectively.
Labour has suffered a series of setbacks in Rust Belt states since the 2010 election propelled tea party conservatives to power across much of the region. Even so, the ruthless efficiency with which Republicans prevailed on right-to-work was breathtaking in Michigan, birthplace of the United Auto Workers, where unions have long been political titans.