LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature's top two leaders said Thursday they would seek right-to-work legislation for Michigan in the next few days, potentially giving the movement its strongest foothold yet in the Rust Belt region, where organized labor already has suffered several body blows.
So-called right-to-work measures generally prohibit requiring unions from collecting fees from nonunion employees, which opponents say drains unions of money and weakens their ability to bargain for good wages and benefits. Supporters insist it would boost the economy and job creation.
Snyder previously said the effort was "not on my agenda." However, he reversed course during a news conference with House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville.
They said bills would be introduced Thursday and they would push for quick passage.
As a throng of angry union activists massed on the sidewalk outside Snyder's office building and in the Capitol across the street, Snyder said the key issue was freedom for workers to choose whether or not to belong to unions. He insisted the legislation was not intended to weaken organized labor or collective bargaining, although opponents fiercely disagree.
The legislation will cover both private and public sector workers, although an exception will be granted for police and firefighters, for whom a binding arbitration process exists under current law.
"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.
Snyder said he kept the issue at arm's length previously because he wanted to focus on other issues to rebuild Michigan's economy.
"It is a divisive issue," he acknowledged.
But he said the matter had come to the forefront of public attention in recent days and that he was influenced by Indiana, which he said had gained jobs and economic growth since approving right-to-work legislation.
Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer denounced the Republicans' plan as "cowardly" and said her colleagues would do all they could to block the legislation although they are badly outnumbered in both chambers.
Republicans have commanding majorities in both chambers — 64-46 in the House and 26-12 in the Senate. Under their rules, only a simple majority of members elected and serving must be present to have a quorum and conduct business. For that reason, Democrats acknowledged it would be futile to boycott sessions and go into hiding, as some lawmakers in neighboring Indiana and Wisconsin have done in recent years to stall legislation unpopular with unions.
Hundreds of chanting, whistle-blowing union activists packed the state Capitol rotunda and hallways, chanting slogans such as "Union buster" and "Right-to-work has got to go" as security officers and state police stood watch.
Many packed the Capitol for a second straight day, continuing their loud chants and whistling in the Rotunda. Outside, many holding signs and wearing hard hats milled around the lawn and surrounding area, uneasily but peacefully mixing with supporters of the measures. State troopers and Capitol security were guarding entrances.
Amid the din just outside the House chamber's doors, Democratic Rep. George Darany of Dearborn delivered the invocation to start Thursday's session. He gamely asked in his prayer "that our work be not confrontational."
Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he was "really disappointed" to see Snyder support "a plan to lower wages and impair the future of Michigan's economy."
"The Republican agenda was repudiated during the election," he said. "That's why we gained five seats in the Michigan House and that's why the Republicans are rushing to act on right-to-work now so they can do it before they lose the votes that they need."