"What we shouldn't be doing is take away your rights to bargain" on wages and working conditions, Obama said Monday in discussing ways to keep the economy moving forward and avoid the looming fiscal cliff of tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts.
Lawmakers in Lansing are expected Tuesday to take final votes on a three-bill package that would make Michigan the 24th state to allow workers to decide whether to pay fees to unions representing workers at their place of employment.
Right-to-work laws have little to do with the economy and "everything to do with politics," Obama said to thunderous cheering and whistles.
"We don't want a race to the bottom," he said. "We want a race to the top."
In Michigan in particular, he said, union workers "were instrumental in reviving the auto industry," adding, unions "were instrumental in not only building the middle class but the United States of America."
Also Monday, Michigan's Democratic congressional delegates urged Gov. Rick Snyder to veto the right-to-work bill or at least seek a delay. Snyder has long held the position that making Michigan the 24th state with a right-to-work law was too divisive, but he changed his position last week and has indicated he would sign it.
"The labor-management environment in this state has dramatically improved in recent years, fracturing that growing unity, and creating a contentious labor-management environment will not help companies to come to Michigan, we told the governor," Sen. Carl Levin said during a teleconference about the meeting.
Levin said the delegation also urged Snyder to allow the matter to be put to a vote and not let a "parliamentary gimmick" deny voters' voices to be heard.
He said Snyder listened and would "consider" their concerns.
Lawmakers in the state Legislature approved the Republican-backed initiatives last week within hours of their introduction. The package would allow workers who don't want to be in a union to be hired in union shops, which has enraged union members across a state with a long history of organized labor struggles.
Levin said it the right-to-work issue "goes to the heart then of collective bargaining."
"We told the governor something which we're not sure that he fully, frankly understood: that nobody is required to join a union, quite the opposite. Under law, nobody can be required to join a union," Levin said. "But because the union negotiates for everybody in the unit, and because it must provide equal benefits to everybody in the unit whether or not they are a member of ... the union, that it is only fair that there be some contribution, some fee that is paid to help the cost of that union in negotiating the contract that benefits every single member in the bargaining unit."
Rep. John Dingell said signing the bill would create "an intolerably bad relationship within our state between labor and management, between citizen and citizen, and between citizens and their government."
The senior representative said he noted during the discussions Snyder wouldn't want to be known as the man who "forced so much divisiveness on the people of this state when he could have prevented it."
"There's no stopping it. The steamroller's moving. It's over. They're not listening to anybody," said Ken Grabowski, legislative director of the Police Officers Association of Michigan, told The Detroit News.
"Whether we'll be successful, I don't know. All throughout history, by demonstrating their displeasure with certain positions, people eventually change the course of that history," United Auto Workers president Bob King said.