TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, speaking to a home crowd here, draws both boos and applause from an automotive audience when he lauds right-to-work legislation he signed into law.

The law allows workers to opt out of joining unions that bargain on their behalf. It took effect in March, but remains a divided issue, based on the audience reaction at a session of the Management Briefing Seminars here.

Speaking to journalists afterward and calling it “freedom to work,” Snyder says the audience’s mixed reaction is typical of what happens when he mentions the issue at public gatherings.

“But I don’t spend a lot of time on it, and I didn’t make it the key point of the talk,” he says. “It is just on the checklist of things to make Michigan more competitive and successful.”

Snyder contends the law will draw more businesses to the state.

“It also encourages unions to be more proactive and actually provide great service so people will join,” he says. “I know a number of people who are happy to join when they see value in what unions offer.”

Snyder contends some businesses chose to locate new facilities in neighboring Indiana rather than Michigan, because the former had a right-to-work law and the latter didn’t at the time.

“It was a draw for Indiana,” he says. “But I remind people that you are not going to find businesses saying, ‘We came to Michigan because of freedom of work,’ because they would make themselves the target of some of the response that you saw at the meeting today.”

Snyder is the first governor on the speaker lineup at this year’s annual conference. Scheduled to speak Thursday is Jay Nixon of Missouri, another state with a strong automotive presence. Several assembly and parts plants are located in Missouri, which offered economic-development incentives to lure many of them.

“I’m not upset other governors are here,” Snyder says. “I don’t believe in negative marketing.”

But he declares Michigan “will not walk away from” its manufacturing-capital title. He contends the state became more attractive to investors after it scrapped the state business tax, which he describes as “the dumbest tax in the U.S.”

He touts programs intended to educate and cultivate workforces ranging from engineers to skilled tradesmen. “Our role is to help you succeed because you are the job creators,” he tells conference attendees that include auto maker and supplier executives.

As a businessman-turned-politician, Snyder describes his role as a service provider. “We are here to give you good service. That is why government exists. Too many people think it exists to take money from people.

“Business 101 says to take care of your existing customers first,” he adds. “We’re doing that, and now we are doing well enough to not only take care of current customers but also go after new customers.”

During a post-speech Q&A, the governor is asked if the City of Detroit declaring bankruptcy will hurt the reputation of the local auto industry.

“If you want a place to do exciting things, come to Detroit,” Snyder says, applauding the private sector for investing in the city and noting billions of dollars have been spent there on public infrastructure projects.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com