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GOP set to deliver blow to labor in union-heavy Michigan

President Obama is expected to address right to work laws today, while speaking in Michigan. Mich. State House Democratic Leader -Elect Tim Greimel  discusses lack of transparency by Gov. Rick Snyder and state legislature in run-up to right-to-work vote, how the bill will hurt unions and wages and the likelihood the bill will pass. Greimel calls the vote "slap in the face to democracy."


Updated 7:39 p.m. — Republicans stand on the cusp of delivering a major blow to organized labor, as they prepare to vote Tuesday on legislation to make Michigan – a state linked to unions in the public conscious – a “right to work” state.

Carlos Osorio / AP

About a dozen members of the Michigan Nurses Association stand on the state Capitol steps in Lansing, Mich., Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, protesting right-to-work legislation.

State lawmakers are expected to approve legislation barring rules in workplaces that make union membership a condition of employment. The offensive would mark the culmination of efforts by Midwestern Republican governors to curb labor rights in the heart of industrial America, where unions once loomed large.

President Barack Obama led Democrats on Monday in a counteroffensive, hoping to stymie Republicans in control of Michigan’s House and Senate, who could act as soon as Tuesday to approve right to work legislation after approving initial versions of the proposed law last week.

Related: Obama decries right-to-work proposal during trip to Michigan

“These so-called right to work laws, they don't have anything to do with economics. They have everything to do with politics,” Obama said in Redford, Mich., where he had planned to travel well before the labor fight erupted last week. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."

But Republicans maintain commanding majorities in Lansing. And Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has said he would sign the legislation if it reached his desk. With that, he would become the latest Republican governor to be elected in 2010 in a Midwestern state to advance legislation meant to curb labor rights. A familiar battle, which played out with such intensity in other states over the last two years, has now found a new epicenter in Michigan.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker memorably pushed legislation through his statehouse that stripped public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights; his initiative prompted a recall election, which the Republican survived in June. Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s similar effort to curb bargaining rights was only halted when voters reversed such a law through a ballot initiative.

But Michigan Republicans might now succeed in passing a right to work law, a favorite proposal of conservatives that isn’t even on the books in Wisconsin or Ohio. Snyder, who had previously said that seeking such a law wasn’t on his agenda, may now preside over one of the most striking symbolic blows to organized labor in some time.

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“I think he's defaulting on his responsibilities,” Michigan Democratic Rep. Sander Levin told NBC News on Monday. “It's a cave to the radical right.”

Levin was among the group of lawmakers who met on Monday with Snyder to plead with him to veto the legislation, or at least delay a vote in the state legislature. Absent that, Levin said Democrats want Republicans to change their proposal to allow for voters to repeal the law through a ballot initiative, as voters did in Ohio. The Michigan law is coupled with an appropriations bill that would exempt it from a popular vote challenge.

Related: Dems launch blitz to halt 'right to work' law in Michigan

“I would have a very difficult time seeing that get changed,” said state Rep. Marty Knollenberg, the chief sponsor of the law in the state House. He contended that the appropriation provision is necessary to help implement the law.

In short, opponents of the Michigan proposal would have little recourse available to challenge the law in the immediate future, making its impact on a union-heavy state like Michigan even more pronounced.

“I think the Republican strategy in doing this so quickly is that they don’t want what Wisconsin had, dragging on for so many days,” said Bill Ballenger, the editor of the influential “Inside Michigan Politics” newsletter. “This is a blitzkrieg, and Republicans hope it’s going to be over and done with tomorrow.

While Republicans in the Michigan Capitol had long pined to advance this law, it languished until after the election. In November, the state’s voters rejected an amendment that would have added a right to collective bargaining to the Michigan state constitution. Amid rumblings that the GOP leadership would resurrect the proposal, it was brought to a vote in the state House and state Senate before organized labor and Democrats were effectively able to mobilize.

Democrats have now turned their attention toward Snyder, who had styled himself as a kind of pragmatic Republican who avoided the ideological trench warfare of his fellow partisans, in halting the law.  According to congressional Democrats, during a meeting with Snyder the governor said he took their concerns “seriously,” though they’re less optimistic privately that he’ll reverse course.

Organized labor groups are organizing a “day of action” on Tuesday in Lansing, including a march to the state capitol that will likely invoke memories of the tens of thousands of activists who flooded the state house in Madison, Wis., during the height of Walker’s legislative battle in 2011.

But Knollenberg said he “can’t think of anything” that would prompt him to back off the legislation. Moreover, Knollenberg suggested it’s state Republican lawmakers – rather than Snyder – who are driving the effort. 

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“It certainly started from the legislature, and then it was presented to the governor,” he said.

“It wasn’t on his priority list, as he indicated,” Knollenberg said of Snyder. But once Republicans had gathered adequate support for the proposal, Snyder “adapted his beliefs and saw that this was a real opportunity to put Michigan on the map in terms of creating jobs.”

And as the law’s passage seems more like a fait accompli, Snyder, if nothing else, will join the ranks of Walker and Kasich. All three will be seriously targeted by Democrats and organized labor in 2014, offering a chance for voters to render their verdict on this trio of Republican antagonists.

For their part, Democrats warn that the toxic partisanship that took hold in Wisconsin and Ohio would now spread to Michigan.

“Instead of Michigan united, it becomes Michigan divided,” Levin said. “We’ve gone from a bipartisan effort to deepening partisanship.”

Alternatively, it could enshrine Snyder – a former business executive who postured himself as “one tough nerd” during his 2010 campaign – as a darling of conservatives who wish to further put unions on the defensive.

“For the state, I think it's absolutely monumental,” said Stu Sandler, a Republican consultant in Michigan. “It's the most significant piece of legislation in decades, and sends a very strong signal about the direction the state is heading.”

Warned one senior labor official, "If this bill is signed, it's going to be Thunderdome between now and 2014."

Knollenberg argued his legislation is only about providing opportunity to the state’s workers.

“I just hope that at the end of the day … the unions will then have to sell their story as to why they’re benefiting the workers,” he said. “I believe that if they can demonstrate their value to their workers, they’ll do fine. But they’re going to have to work for it.”

Update: Not all hope was lost for supporters of organized labor, who believe they would be able to use a citizens initiative under Michigan law to eventually challenge the right-to-work law. Under such a scenario, if labor supporters could gather a higher number of signatories to a petition, they could force a vote to undo the law in 2014. However, the new right-to-work law would be allowed to take effect in the meanwhile.