Two days ago, I reported that Michigan Republicans, along with Gov. Rick Snyder, were planning on making Michigan the nation’s 24th “right to work” for Less (RTWFL) state by the end of the year. The timetable was, apparently, far more aggressive than that. The very next day after Snyder announced RTWFL was “on the table,” he held a joint press conference with House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville saying that he was asking for the legislation to be passed and that he would sign it into law.
“I do not view this as something against the unions,” Snyder said. Rather, he went on, it’s about “workers [having] the right to choose who they associate with.”
What happened next must have set a new record for the speed at which the Michigan legislature gets bills passed. By the end of the day, both the Senate and the House vacated existing “placeholder” bills, dropped in new RTWFL language and passed a total of three bills—two in the Senate and another in the House. No committee hearings. No floor debate. The Democrats could do virtually nothing as the Republicans steamrolled the bills through without any formal public input whatsoever.
A procedural speed bump put in place by Democrats delayed moving the Senate bills to the House by one day and there is a mandatory five-day waiting period before the House can take action. This allows union-supporting citizens to express their disdain for these new laws, just as they did on Thursday as thousands of Michiganders descended on the capitol building. In the onslaught of this informal public input, House Speaker Bolger locked down the capitol building. Tempers flared, protestors were maced and it took a court order requested by the Democrats to get the building opened again.
The bills include a $1 million appropriation. Michigan law precludes citizen referendums to overturn laws with appropriations, so not only was there no opportunity for public input before the bills were voted on, there will be none afterwards, as well.
Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift told me, “Today was a dark day for democracy in Michigan. The people were shut out of their own capitol so that lawmakers could better serve corporate special interests. But working people in this state are resilient, and will keep fighting until their voices are heard.”
Michigan Democratic Party chair Mark Brewer was a bit more gloomy. Referring to the role multimillionaire Dick Devos played in the RTWFL legislative action, he issued a statement saying, “The Tea Party takeover of the Michigan GOP is officially complete. Snyder, Bolger and Richardville have shown they are nothing more than puppets for Dick DeVos.” DeVos is reported to have assured Republicans that if they faced recall, he would bankroll their fight against it. He’s reported to have threatened to withhold campaign donations from the same lawmakers if they didn’t vote to pass the bills.
I spoke to a number of union members who were in Lansing yesterday. Katie Oppenheim, a nurse and Michigan Nurses Association member, said, “What can I say? It is a sad day in Michigan—in so many ways. As a nurse and union member, I fear for the safety of patients and nurses. Through collective bargaining, we have been able to negotiate adequate staffing, adequate rest periods and safety equipment. I think the corporate mentality will completely take over.”
Rick Catherman, a teacher and Michigan Education Association (MEA) member from Chelsea, wrote me after an exhausting day, much of which was spent outside in the freezing cold, waiting to be allowed back into the capitol building. It was a “Day of ‘The Big D’s,'” he wrote—“Democrats, Demonstrators, Disappointment, Disgust and Determination! For the state Democrats, it was a day of disappointment and disgust with their colleagues for rushing this damaging legislation through with no committee meetings or testimony, or opportunity for input from citizens of Michigan. Union workers, however, were determined demonstrators."
It was great to see state leaders standing with the demonstrators. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, MEA president Steve Cook, Karla Swift, UAW president Bob King, along with current state representatives and senators—all were there with us.
The energy in the capitol building from demonstrators was amazing–teachers standing with nurses, auto workers and service and food workers, all standing up for the citizens of Michigan. Nurses standing up for their patients, teachers standing up for our students. It was amazing.
Christine Barry, owner of the state blog Blogging for Michigan, reflected on the day’s events in light of our state’s important place in the labor movement.
My great-grandfather and my uncle were in the hole, my other uncle was in Little Fisher and my grandma and grandpa were on the outside,” she said, referring to significant labor protests in Michigan labor history. “We already fought this battle. We fought this battle with door hinges and water hoses and broomsticks and rolling pins. We were beaten and shot at and we were hungry and cold. We faced down the National Guard and the company police and we won the right to unionize our work. We have union shops because we earned them, and no corporate hack is going to take them away and call it freedom.
One of the biggest ironies — or, perhaps, hypocrisies — of yesterday’s action is the language used by Gov. Snyder and Republicans as they justified what they did. They referred repeatedly to “choice” and “freedom.” However, on the very same day, the House passed incredibly regressive anti-Choice legislation limiting women’s access to reproductive and abortion services and also a committee passed a replacement bill for the now-repealed Emergency Manager law, an anti-democratic law that disenfranchises local communities and takes away their voice in elected government. These are odd ways to celebrate “choice” and “freedom.”
Michiganders are tough and resilient. It’s only through highly gerrymandered state House and Senate districts that Republicans are able to have such complete control over our state legislature. Michigan elected President Barack Obama by a 10-point margin last month and sent Democrat Debbie Stabenow back to the U.S. Senate by an even wider margin. In 2014 and beyond, those who betrayed Michigan’s labor legacy are sure to pay the price politically. What is done can be undone and so it shall be.