By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - Union members and others opposed to Michigan becoming a "right-to-work" state plan major protests in the state capital this week to try to stop Republicans from restricting labor unions in the cradle of the unionized U.S. auto industry.
Right-to-work opponents will begin to converge on Lansing on Monday, organizers said, and they expect thousands at the rally on Tuesday when the state legislature reconvenes.
With Republicans in control of the legislature and the governor committed to sign the laws, Michigan could become the 24th right-to-work state by the middle of the week, dealing a stunning blow to the power of organized labor in the United States.
Michigan Republicans surprised labor unions on Thursday by pushing through the legislature in a day a proposal making union membership and dues voluntary in the private sector. The state Senate also voted to apply that to the public sector, except for police and fire unions.
"Never in a million years did I think that Michigan would ever become a right-to-work state. We are Motown, The Motor City. Michigan was built on unions," said Libby Brown, president of a teachers' union local in Jackson, Michigan, referring to the state's roots in popular music and auto manufacturing.
The United Auto Workers union held training sessions for peaceful protest on Saturday and its members have used telephone and email to recruit a strong showing in Lansing on Tuesday.
Bernie Ricke, president of UAW Local 600, which represents workers at a large Ford Motor Co plant in Dearborn, said that workers who are not on a shift Tuesday will be provided bus transportation to Lansing.
The plant will be open and operating, but Ricke said some workers may take holidays in order to attend.
The protests recall the bitter fight between Republicans and unions in Wisconsin in 2011 that culminated in an unsuccessful effort to recall Governor Scott Walker in June.
Unions may not be able to stop Michigan Republicans, who hold legislative majorities in both chambers, from making the laws final on Tuesday, political analysts said. Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who once opposed right-to-work as a divisive issue, has said he will sign them into law.
"There are, obviously, going to be efforts to change minds," before Tuesday, said Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics and a former Michigan state lawmaker. "It's likely going to pass."
The Michigan right-to-work laws would go into effect in April 2013. Their immediate impact would be reduced by a so-called "grandfather clause" exempting existing contracts until they expire. For example, the contract between the United Auto Workers union and General Motors Co., Ford and Chrysler does not expire until September 2015.
OPPONENTS SEEK NEW STRATEGY
Supporters said the right-to-work laws would help the state keep and attract businesses. Bob Clark, a labor relations consultant and founder of RWC Consulting in Brighton, Michigan, said some auto suppliers may be influenced by right-to-work.
"The distribution of supplier facilities ... might make it attractive to come to Michigan," he said.
Opponents said right-to-work would lead to lower wages. "This is class warfare against the middle class," said Jay Makled, a UAW bargaining representative from Dearborn.
But even before the legislature took its final votes, Democrats and unions were mobilizing to overturn the right-to-work.
One path, a public referendum, has been complicated by a procedure Republicans used to exempt the right-to-work laws from this type of challenge. The tactic involves an allocation of money to implement the law.
But Joe DiSano, a Democratic political consultant at Main Street Strategies in Lansing, said he had discussed with Democratic lawmakers a procedural way around this.
The laws are also likely to be challenged in court, DiSano said, citing a 1948 federal law that gave workers the right to collective bargaining. If a federal judge were to block the laws while the case was being heard, there might be time for a public vote, he said.
Discussions are also underway concerning possible recall elections in an attempt to remove Republican lawmakers who voted for right-to-work. But DiSano said a recall attempt against the governor, who faces re-election in 2014, is less likely.
While the law may not have an immediate impact on the auto industry it could make it harder for unions to organize at plants in Michigan, which has nearly 700 auto-related manufacturing facilities, the most of any state.
Michigan has the fifth highest percentage of unionized workers in the nation at 17.5 percent of the workforce, according to government figures.
(Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Jackie Frank)