LANSING, Mich. - Police arrested several protesters and sprayed mace into the crowd in the state Capitol on Thursday as lawmakers discussed right-to-work legislation that would make Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-work state.
The protesters were arrested as they tried to rush the Senate floor, said Michigan State Police Inspector Gene Adamczyk.
"When several of the individuals rushed the troopers, they used chemical munitions to disperse the crowd," he said. "It would be a lot worse if someone gets hurt and I failed to act."
The police, who said the building was at capacity, blocked the entrance to the Capitol, leaving several hundred people outside waiting to get inside.
Adamczyk said later the building wasn't at capacity, but that the protesters were so heavily concentrated in a few areas, including jam packed outside the Senate, that they didn't want to add to that crush of people.
Earlier, Gov. Rick Snyder said he was prepared to sign the legislation when the bills get to his desk.
During a news conference in the state's Capitol, Snyder said the Legislature will proceed with right-to-work legislation for public and private employees - which would exclude police and firefighters - and that the bills could be introduced Thursday during the lame-duck session.
"The goal isn't to divide Michigan. It is to bring Michigan together," the governor said, as hundreds of union protesters stormed the Capitol and the governor's office, voicing their opposition to the plan.
Snyder, who for more than a year had maintained that he didn't want to deal with the contentious issue and called it "too divisive," said one of the things he looked at when deciding about backing right-to-work legislation is Michigan, was the neighboring state of Indiana where voters recently chose to make that a "freedom to choose" state. The governor said since right-to-work rules were added in Indiana, economic activity has increased and business has grown.
The legislation is about "freedom to choose," and "fairness and equity in the workplace," Snyder said. The issue "was on the table whether I wanted it to be there or not."
Now, he said, is "time to be a good leader and stand up and take a position."
He said police and firefighters would be excluded due to the danger associated with their jobs and the need for a "special bond" among them.
House Speaker Jase Bolger also cited special provisions given to the Michigan State Police in the state constitution and binding arbitration laws that apply to public safety workers.
Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said bills will be introduced Thursday and passed during the lame-duck session. They will not be given immediate effect, meaning they would take effect around April 1, Richardville said.
Snyder unveiled the plan, surrounded by union workers who support the legislation and other business and state leaders, including Richardville and Bolger.
"I am adamantly opposed to this," said Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who was on his way to Lansing to take part in a rally against the measure. "I think it's a disaster for the state. I think it's shortsighted and vindictive. The state is going to be in a civil war for the next year." Ficano said the topic of right to work has never come up in his discussions with businesses the county has wooed to Michigan.
"Businesses want predictability," Ficano said. "Organized labor has shown that it knows how to be a partner."
Ficano said he opposes the measure on philosophical grounds as well, noting that two workers in the same job would receive the same union-bargained benefits even when only one of them is paying union dues.
"That's fundamentally unfair," Ficano said.
Outside the news conference, the protests raged.
They carried signs that read: "Right to work: nobody wants it. Nobody needs it." and "Workers' rights, not right to work."
Daniel Mouradian of Southfield left his electrician's job at 3 a.m. after a 10-hour shift and came to the Capitol to join in the protest.
"I'm here for my family, your family and all work people," he said. "I'm going to be here every chance I get. If that means camping out here, I'll do it. I already told my wife that she needs to be ready to bail me out."
Katie Oppenheim, a nurse at the University of Michigan Health systems, said having a collective voice to negotiate will only help care for patients at the state's hospitals.
"This is about being able to negotiate for things like safety equipment and having adequate rest between shifts," she said.
And Jeff Bean, a teacher and third-generation union member from Flint, said a right-to-work law is only going to hurt good working environments and be bad for many families in the state.
"And the fact that they're trying to ram this through so quickly really concerns me," he said.
The Capitol was jammed with both union protesters and police trying to ensure a peaceful, if somewhat noisy, protest of the right-to-work law.
Geoff Kish, a union pipefitter from Davison, said he worked alongside non-union tradespeople in the right-to-work state of Louisiana and believes if the change is approved, it will drive down wages, benefits and the standard of living in Michigan.
"It's a proven fact that in right-to-work states the economy is worse," he said.
Opponents and proponents cite conflicting studies about the impact on employment and wages of the 23 states that have right-to-work legislation.