"I have signed the freedom to work bills into law." - Gov Rick Snyder
— Rick Snyder (@onetoughnerd) December 11, 2012
As the chants of angry protesters filled the Capitol, Michigan lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to right-to-work legislation, dealing a devastating and once-unthinkable defeat to organized labor in a state that has been a cradle of the movement for generations.
The Republican-dominated House approved two bills with the same efficiency that the Senate showed last week. One measure dealt with private sector workers, the other with government employees. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed them both within hours.
"This is about freedom, fairness and equality," House Speaker Jase Bolger said during floor debate. "These are basic American rights - rights that should unite us."
After the vote, he said, Michigan's future "has never been brighter, because workers are free."
Once the laws are enacted, the state where the United Auto Workers was founded and labor has long been a political titan will join 23 others with right-to-work laws, which prohibit unions from collecting fees from nonunion workers.
Supporters say the laws give workers more choice and support economic growth, but critics insist the real intent is to weaken organized labor by encouraging workers to "freeload" by withholding money unions need to bargain effectively.
Protesters in the gallery chanted "Shame on you!" as the measures were adopted. Union backers clogged the hallways and grounds shouting "No justice, no peace," and Democrats warned that there would be repercussions the bill's passage.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and other Democrats in the state's congressional delegation met with Snyder on Monday and urged him back off pursuing right-to-work.
"For millions of Michigan workers, this is no ordinary debate," Sen. Levin said. "It's an assault on their right to have their elected bargaining agent negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions, and to have all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them."
Although loud, rowdy, and sometimes violent, the crowds were considerably smaller than those drawn by right-to-work legislation in Indiana earlier this year and in Wisconsin in 2011, during consideration of a law reforming so-called "collective bargaining rights" for most state employees.
Those measures provoked weeks of intense debate, with Democrats boycotting sessions to delay action and tens of thousands of activists occupying statehouses.
In Michigan, Republicans acted so quickly that opponents had little time to plan massive resistance.
Gov. Snyder and GOP leaders announced their intentions last Thursday. Within hours, the bills were pushed through the Senate as powerless Democrats objected. After a legally required five-day waiting period, the House approved final passage.
"This was a problem that needed to be solved," the governor said. He expects the law to be challenged in court but believes it will stand.
Protesters began assembling before daylight outside the sandstone-and-brick Capitol, chanting and whistling in the chilly darkness and waving placards with slogans such as "Stop the War on Workers." Others joined a three-block march to the building, some wearing coveralls and hard hats.
The crowds filled the rotunda area, beating drums and chanting. The chorus rose to a deafening thunder as House members voted. Later, protesters surged toward a building across the street housing Snyder's office. Two people were arrested when they tried to get inside, state police said.
But by late afternoon, the demonstrators had mostly dispersed.
Gov. Snyder insisted the matter wasn't handled with undue haste, calling the debate in the House and Senate a "healthy discussion."
A failed ballot proposal to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the Michigan Constitution triggered the discussion that led to passage of right-to-work, the governor said.
Michigan gives 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 repeated setbacks.
Lawmakers who backed the bills "will be held accountable at the ballot box in 2014," said state Rep. Tim Greimel, the incoming House Democratic leader.
But Sen. John Proos, a Republican from St. Joseph who voted for both bills, predicted that objections would fade as the shift in policy brings more jobs to Michigan.
"As they say in sports," he said, "the atmosphere in the locker room gets a lot better when the team's winning."
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The Associated Press contributed to this report. Featured image courtesy Dearborn Free Press & Bob Brodbeck.