By JOHN FLESHER and JEFF KAROUB
The Associated Press
LANSING — As rumors swirled Wednesday that Republicans were preparing to introduce right-to-work legislation, outnumbered Democrats in the Michigan House and Senate pledged to resist such proposals and said rushing them through would poison the state's political atmosphere.
Tensions rose at the Capitol late in the afternoon as hundreds of union members packed into the rotunda area, blowing whistles and shouting slogans such as "Union buster" and "Right to work has got to go." State police officers and staff security officers were on hand but the House and Senate sessions were not disrupted.
So-called "right-to-work" measures generally prohibit unions from collecting fees from nonunion workers, which opponents say would drain unions of money and weaken their ability to bargain for good wages and benefits. Supporters insist it would boost the economy and job creation.
After saying repeatedly over the past two years that right-to-work wasn't a priority for him, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder told reporters after a meeting with GOP legislative leaders Tuesday that it was "on the agenda." No bills have surfaced, but many lawmakers and interest groups expect Republicans to push for quick approval in the waning days of a lame-duck session scheduled to end Dec. 20.
Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, said there appears to be enough support from GOP members to gain passage, although he declined to provide a specific number of committed votes. Still, he said, there's "nothing for legislators to look at" yet, only ideas of what such measures might look like.
Adler said Bolger, Snyder and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville are "in contact continuously" and seeking agreement on whether to proceed.
"There are layers of decisions that have to be made," he said. "The first decision (is), 'Do we go forward or not?' Once you have that, the others will fall like dominoes."
During a raucous Capitol news conference packed with union activists, Democratic leaders denounced right-to-work as a handout to corporate executives at the expense of workers. They said it was political retribution after organized labor unsuccessfully pushed a November ballot initiative that would have made such laws unconstitutional.
"They have launched an all-out war on the middle class in this state and it's time we fought it back," said Rep. Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills, who will be the House minority leader next year.
He said Republicans, who lost five seats in last month's election, wanted to act quickly "because they know that a lot of their 'yes' votes on this do not have to face election again."
Republicans have commanding majorities in both chambers — 64-46 in the House and 26-12 in the Senate. Under their rules, only a simple majority of members elected and serving must be present to have a quorum and conduct business. For that reason, Democrats acknowledged that boycotting sessions and going into hiding, as some lawmakers in neighboring Indiana and Wisconsin have done in recent years to block legislation unpopular with unions, would be futile in Michigan.
Still, they pledged to use all legal means to stop right-to-work. House Democrats already have begun withholding votes on some bills to show their displeasure.
"We're going to fight and we're going to make it as difficult as possible on them," Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer said. "We're going to look at every strategy we can."
Advocates on both sides continued furious lobbying efforts. A right-to-work advocacy group called the Michigan Freedom Fund hung a banner across the front of Capitol's steps promoting a website where people can sign a petition. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce this week announced its backing for right-to-work.
Michigan State AFL-CIO spokeswoman Sara Wallenfang said her organization, which represents 56 labor groups, is helping to coordinate "lobby day" events at the Capitol, involving hundreds of union members.
They ... go talk to their representatives about why they think this is a horrible economic path to walk," she said.
Shana Alderton, director of field services for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Michigan, was among the hundreds ringing the Capitol rotunda late Wednesday afternoon. Amid the din of banging, chanting and whistling, Alderton said the demonstrators hoped that lawmakers "will listen and understand that right-to-work is not good for Michigan."
Alderton said several unions and organizations have been mobilizing, and "the plan is to be here as long as we have to stop this foolish legislation."