By Andrea King Collier
LANSING, Mich., Dec 6 (Reuters) - Michigan Republicans on Thursday announced a drive to make the home of the U.S. auto industry the 24th "right to work" state banning mandatory union dues, setting off a confrontation with organized labor that immediately led to arrests of protesters.
Hundreds of unionized workers converged on the state capital of Lansing as majority Republicans in the legislature prepared to introduce a draft law as soon as Thursday with a target for passage by the end of the year.
Several people were arrested while demonstrating inside the Capitol building when they tried to rush past troopers outside the Senate chambers, State Police spokesman Gene Adamczyk said.
The protests recalled the bitter fight over the last two years in Wisconsin, where Republicans voted to curb the powers of public sector unions.
The Wisconsin law in 2011 sparked massive protests and unsuccessful efforts to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker.
Hundreds of people were crowded into the Michigan Capitol building and entry was cut off for safety reasons except for those conducting business, Adamczyk said. At least 2,000 people gathered on the grounds outside, he said.
"We had such a concentration of protesters in one area," he said. "We don't want the mob to shift and someone to go over the Rotunda railing."
Democrats said they were planning to file a lawsuit to get the building reopened and were seeking to delay further legislative action.
During the Wisconsin confrontation, some Democrats fled the state in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Republicans from having a quorum to vote on union measures they opposed.
Michigan is home to the United Auto Workers and would become the second state in the industrial U.S. heartland to adopt such a law after Indiana earlier in 2012.
Republican Governor Rick Snyder said the legislation would cover the public and private sectors, with exemptions for police and fire, and he hoped it would be passed before lawmakers adjourn for the holidays.
"Quite often people call it right-to-work, but I think it is a much better description to say that this is about fairness in the workplace and equality in the workplace," Snyder said.
Snyder said he was asking for an act to be passed promptly and he would sign it when it arrived on his desk.
Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger and Republican Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said they believe there are enough votes to pass the legislation and aimed to get it done by the end of 2012. It would not take effect until possibly three months into 2013, Richardville said.
"This debate has been ongoing in Michigan for decades and specifically in this legislature for two years now," Bolger said.
Snyder's decision to pursue the legislation marks a reversal for the governor, who had said that a right-to-work law would be too divisive. On Thursday, he said Indiana's actions earlier this year helped influence his decision.
"I think this is what is best for Michigan," Snyder said.
Snyder acknowledged Thursday the demonstrations at the Capitol and the strong feelings people had about the issue.
"We have come to the point over the last few weeks and the last month or two where that issue was on the table whether I wanted it to be there or not," Snyder said.
Michigan voters in November rejected a measure that would have enshrined a right to collective bargaining in the state constitution, leading to renewed calls from state lawmakers to take up the right-to-work issue before the end of the year.
"Right-to-work" laws typically allow workers to opt out of paying union dues and bar requirements that an employee must join a union to work in a certain shop.
Supporters say the laws help attract or keep businesses, while opponents say they suppress worker wages and benefits and are aimed at undermining the financial stability of unions.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce on Monday gave its support for a "right-to-work" law while the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, which includes both business and labor interests, last week urged Michigan not to pursue such a law.
Michigan had the fifth highest percentage of workers in the country who are union members in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.