LANSING, Michigan (AP) — Police used pepper spray Thursday to subdue protesters trying to rush the Michigan state Senate after the governor and other Republican leaders announced they would press for quick approval of right-to-work legislation limiting union powers.
The Michigan House voted 58-52 Thursday afternoon to approve the legislation prohibiting most private unions from collecting fees from nonunion employees. The Senate also approved the legislation by a six-vote margin.
Opponents of so-called right-to-work measures say they 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.
A victory in Michigan would give the movement its strongest foothold yet in the industry-heavy Rust Belt region, where organized labor already has suffered several body blows.
Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker pushed through a law last year that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers, leading to huge protests at the state Capitol and an effort to recall the governor. Walker survived the recall referendum in June. A court battle over the law's constitutionality is ongoing.
Even before the votes in Michigan, protesters streamed inside preparing for what appeared inevitable after Gov. Rick Snyder joined Republican legislative leaders Thursday morning in announcing they would push swift passage.
Eight people were arrested for resisting and obstructing when they tried to push past two troopers guarding the Senate door, state Police Inspector Gene Adamczyk said.
After repeatedly insisting during his first two years in office that right-to-work was not on his agenda, Snyder reversed course Thursday, a month after voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have barred such measures under the state constitution.
"This is all about taking care of the hard-working workers in Michigan, being pro-worker and giving them freedom to make choices," Snyder said during a news conference with House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Minority Leader Randy Richardville, both fellow Republicans.
"The goal isn't to divide Michigan, it is to bring Michigan together," Snyder said.
The Capitol, which was temporarily closed because of safety concerns, reopened Thursday afternoon, sending hundreds of protesters streaming back inside with chants of, "Whose house? Our house!" Adamczyk said a judge ordered the building reopened.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley repeatedly gaveled for order as Democratic senators denounced the legislation to applause from protesters in the galley. At one point, a man shouted, "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! That's what you people are." He was quickly escorted out.
The decision to push forward infuriated outnumbered Democratic state legislators, who resorted to parliamentary maneuvers to slow action but were powerless to block the bills that were expected to be introduced Thursday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Snyder said he had kept the issue at arm's length while pursuing other programs to bolster the state economy. But he said circumstances had pushed the matter to the forefront.
"It is a divisive issue," he acknowledged. "But it was already being divisive over the past few weeks, so let's get this resolved. Let's reach a conclusion that's in the best interests of all."
Also influencing his decision, he said, were reports that some 90 companies had decided to locate in Indiana since that state adopted right-to-work legislation. "That's thousands of jobs, and we want to have that kind of success in Michigan," he said.