NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Protesters descended on Michigan’s Statehouse on Tuesday as legislators began to vote on a controversial right-to-work measure. The legislation, which would allow workers at union-represented employers to forgo paying dues, is expected to pass since Republicans dominate both chambers. The state’s House is voting Tuesday on two bills, each covering public and private employees, that the Senate already approved last week.
Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has said he will sign it. Thousands of people, many of them union workers, gathered outside the statehouse, chanting and holding signs as snow fell.

There are 23 states which have right-to-work laws, mostly in the South and western plains states, where union membership is relatively weak. Nationwide, union membership stands at 11.8%. Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers where 17.5% of employees are represented by unions, would be by far the most heavily unionized state to pass such legislation. It would join neighboring Indiana in converting to right-to-work this year.

“It would devastate the workers,” UAW President Bob King told CNN Tuesday morning. “We’re worried about all workers in the state of Michigan.” Advocates of the bill say it will help attract businesses to the state, but critics say that it would weaken labor’s bargaining strength by cutting union financial resources without doing anything to bring in more jobs.

Employees in right-to-work states have lower wages, on average, than their counterparts elsewhere, according to Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at the ILR School at Cornell University. That’s because the unions are weaker in those states and aren’t as effective in bargaining for higher wages.

The average full-time, full-year worker in a right-to-work state makes about $1,500 less annually, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning organization. The rate of workers covered by employer-sponsored health insurance is 2.6 percentage points lower, while pension coverage is 4.8 percentage points lower.

The measure’s passage would symbolize the declining fortunes of the nation’s once powerful union movement. Only four states have passed right-to-work laws since the 1960s. “If right-to-work passes in Michigan, it demonstrates the weakness of the labor movement,” Hurd said. “If it can happen in Michigan, there’s a feeling it can happen anywhere.”

CNNMoney’s Chris Isidore and CNN’s Poppy Harlow and Alison Kosik contributed to this report. The-CNN-Wire/Atlanta/+1-404-827-WIRE(9473)

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