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A unionized steel worker holds up a sign during a demonstration Thursday outside the Capitol in Lansing, Mich.Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is launching an assault on the stronghold of the U.S. labour movement, calling for the state to adopt so-called right-to-work legislation – a move that threatens to revive the bitter labour-management battles of the 1930s and 1940s.

If Mr. Snyder is successful, right-to-work legislation moves a step closer to Ontario, which already felt some impact earlier this year when Indiana proclaimed a right-to-work law and Caterpillar Inc. shifted diesel locomotive manufacturing to that state from London, Ont.

The Michigan governor's move sets up a clash with the powerful United Auto Workers, which was born in Michigan amid bloody battles and plant occupations against Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. two generations ago.

"It's going to be a war," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and a long-time observer of the North American labour scene. "It's tremendously symbolic for the labour movement because if it passes, it's a huge defeat."

The move by Mr. Snyder, a Republican, backed by Republican majorities in both the state House of Representatives and Senate, caps of a year of union-government and union-company confrontations in both Canada and the United States.

House members voted 58-52 to approve the measure Thursday afternoon as hundreds of union activists protested loudly in the state Capitol halls in Lansing. Only Republicans voted in favour. In the evening, the measure also passed in the Senate by a vote of 22-16.  Four Republicans joined all 12 Democrats in opposition.

Cutting costs is the order of the day at companies battered by global competitors in low-wage locations and at governments struggling to reduce massive deficits. School teachers are battling the Ontario government, NHL players have been locked out for almost three months and about 600 workers at the Caterpillar plant in London, Ont. lost their jobs when they refused to accept company demands for wage cuts of 50 per cent.

In the U.S., unions fought Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker over cuts, forcing him to undergo a recall election (he was re-elected), Indiana passed right-to-work legislation and workers at a Caterpillar factory in Illinois agreed to a six-year wage freeze at a company racking up record profits.

Right-to-work laws effectively make it much more difficult for unions to organize workplaces by making membership and dues-paying optional in unionized workplaces.

It was Indiana's adoption of right-to-work legislation that sparked Mr. Snyder's move, he said Thursday, pointing to the potential of more jobs because a state where union membership and dues are not mandatory is regarded as friendlier to business. Unions protested in the state capital of Lansing as he spoke.

The Caterpillar work that was eliminated in London was shifted to Indiana days after that state adopted right-to-work laws.

"The belief of some is that if Michigan passed a right-to-work law, auto parts makers would not be attracted to Indiana or other right-to-work states like Texas and might move north to Michigan to be near the Detroit Three auto makers," Prof. Chaison said.

There are fears in Ontario that a similar shift of manufacturing firms and jobs to Michigan could occur if Canada's largest province doesn't follow suit.

The northward creep of right-to-work legislation – which until this year had been a fixture mainly of southern states – could include Ontario because Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has promised to pass such laws if he is elected premier.

That would bring a fierce response from the Ontario labour movement that would be stronger than the protests held when Mike Harris was premier, Sid Ryan, head of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said Thursday.

"It would make the Mike Harris days look like a Sunday picnic," Mr. Ryan said.

Right-to-work laws in such states as Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi have been a factor in decisions by Asia– and Europe-based auto makers to locate assembly plants in the South.

The AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for U.S. labour, responded to Mr. Snyder's announcement by saying that all workers earn about $1,500 (U.S.) less on average annually in right-to-work states and are less likely to receive pensions or health care benefits.

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