On Dec. 6, 2012, Republicans in the Michigan legislature passed bills that eventually led to Michigan becoming the 24th "right to work" for less state. With their majorities in both the House and the Senate and encouragement from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, this was a pretty straightforward accomplishment. However, it was done with a crowd of thousands of protesters surrounding the Capitol building and filling its corridors. Not content to flex their legislative muscle by passing the bills, Republicans filled the gallery with their staffers to prevent anti-"right to work" protesters from having seats.
At 10:12 a.m. ET, Democratic Rep. Barb Byrum sent out this tweet:
Get to the House Gallery!!House GOP staffers are rumored to be trying to fill it before #NoRTWMI protesters arrive.— BarbByrum (@BarbByrum) December 6, 2012
A short time later, in an unprecedented move, Republicans closed the Capitol building, preventing anyone from entering for four hours. Citizens, Democratic legislators who had walked out in protest and journalists were all kept from entering the building and participating in the debate inside. Here is Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift, along with other labor leaders and journalists, being turned back from the doors of the Capitol:
A complaint was filed in the Ingham County Circuit Court to force the reopening of the Capitol and, eventually, it was reopened, but not before those locked out had missed their opportunity to witness and participate in the debate going on inside.
Last week, the complaint was modified to argue that the passage of the bills during the Capitol lockdown was done in violation of the Open Meetings Act, the First Amendment and the Michigan and U.S. constitutions and, therefore, the votes should be invalidated. The 36-page complaint can be read here (PDF).
The list of plaintiffs in the complaint is impressive:
- Michigan State University professor Bonnie Bucqueroux—citizen journalist with Lansing Online News;
- Steve Cook and Rick Trainor from the Michigan Education Association (MEA);
- State Sen. Rebekah Warren;
- State Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Brandon Dillon;
- Michigan State AFL-CIO;
- Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council; and
- Change to Win.
Also involved in the suit are the ACLU of Michigan, MEA, UAW and the law firms of White, Schneider, Young & Chiodini; Sachs Waldman; and Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Rivers & Golden. The case is currently before Ingham County Judge William E. Collette.
Although the Republicans still maintain majorities in both the Michigan House and Senate, their margins in the House narrowed considerably after the November 2012 election. They narrowed enough, in fact, that they would not be able to pass these bills today. The two bills involved were passed 58-51 with six Republicans joining Democrats. Five of those Republicans retained their seats and Democrats picked up another five seats. Therefore, the outcome of this complaint could well spell the end of "right to work" in Michigan.
I spoke to professor Bucqueroux about her involvement in this complaint and the importance of her role as a citizen journalist. Bucqueroux first discovered the power of the Internet as a medium in 1996, when she used it to tell the story of the death of her daughter.
“I realized that the Internet had a huge capacity to tell stories, which is what citizen journalism is at its core,” Bucqueroux told me. “I was excited to be in on the ground floor of this new way to reach people. Citizen journalists are like the water that fills in between the rocks in a riverbed. We can get to places traditional journalists often cannot.”
She said that in her nearly 20 years of covering stories, this event was the first time she had ever seen anything like the Capitol being shut down to citizens and reporters.
“I was, frankly, shocked,” she said. “And it takes a lot to shock me....I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen a lot of outrageous stuff. One of the hallmarks of our country is free access to information and the ability of journalists to cover whatever stories they wish. If you want to talk about ‘American Exceptionalism,’ that is our finest example. What happened at the Capitol that day was a betrayal of that.”
Swift had this to say:
Regardless of how you feel about "right to work" laws, everyone has a stake in seeing that our government conducts business in a democratic and transparent way. Any law passed while citizens were locked out of their Capitol building should be struck down.
The Snyder administration has been both promoting "right to work" as an economic driver and denying that it will have any impact on job growth. In January, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation placed a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal bragging about how "right to work" makes Michigan attractive to new business investment. Shortly after that, Snyder told an audience, “[More than] 90% of the jobs that you’re looking at aren’t going to be in a situation where right to work is even relevant, [so] let’s keep in mind what the economy is really about.”
Snyder has gone to the courts on "right to work" for less himself, asking the state Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of the "right to work" law. However, if the Circuit Court finds that it was passed in violation of Michigan and federal laws, the legality of the law itself may be moot.
[Photo credit: Anne C. Savage | Eclectablog]