LANSING, Mich. (AP) - In an audacious flex of political muscle, Republicans in a single day reached the brink of a goal that for years has seemed an all-but-impossible dream: making the labor bastion of Michigan a right-to-work state.
The GOP majority used its superior numbers and backing from Gov. Rick Snyder to ramrod legislation through the House and Senate on Thursday, brushing aside denunciations and walkouts by helpless Democrats and cries of outrage from union activists who swarmed the state Capitol hallways and grounds. At one point, police used pepper spray to subdue demonstrators who tried to rush the Senate chamber.
"Shame! Shame on you!" protesters chorused from the gallery as the Senate voted. Earlier, security guards removed a man who yelled, "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! That's what you people are." Another shouted, "We will remember in November."
Rules require a five-day wait before the House and Senate vote on each other's bills, which would prohibit making payment of union fees a condition of employment. They are scheduled to reconvene Tuesday, when Michigan could become the 24th state with right-to-work laws if the measures are quickly enacted and Snyder signs them, as he has pledged to do.
A victory in Michigan, a cradle of organized labor, would give the right-to-work movement its strongest foothold yet in the Rust Belt, where the 2010 election and tea party movement produced assertive Republican majorities that have dealt unions one body blow after another.
But compared with Indiana and Wisconsin, where votes to curb union rights followed weeks or months of pitched battles, Michigan acted in the blink of an eye. GOP legislative leaders were saying as late as Wednesday that it was uncertain whether the issue would come up in a lame-duck session moving toward adjournment. Snyder had said repeatedly since his election two years ago that the topic was divisive and not on his agenda.
Thursday morning, however, the governor called a news conference with House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville to announce that not only would right-to-work legislation be considered, it would be placed on a fast track. By sundown, bills had been introduced and passed without committee votes or public hearings.
Republicans insisted the measures had been given adequate consideration, saying the topic was familiar - particularly after the protracted campaign that preceded voters' overwhelming November rejection of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have barred right-to-work laws.
"We've come to the point where this issue is on the table," Snyder told The Associated Press in an interview. "It's time to step up and make a decision and not let this fester."
He and legislative leaders denied opponents' contentions that the bills were designed to weaken unions by depriving them of funds needed to bargain effectively or were retaliation for the ballot initiative, which organized labor spearheaded. They said a "freedom to work" law would make unions more responsive to members' needs and give employees freedom to decide whether to accept union representation.
"This does not change collective bargaining and this is not anti-union," Bolger said. "It is pro-worker."
Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof said a number of factors influenced the decision to push ahead, including Snyder's endorsement and the ballot initiative, which put right-to-work in the spotlight. Primarily, however, Republicans recognized they had enough votes to capture a long-sought prize, he said.