Despite the presence of thousands of protesters and counter-protesters in the Michigan state capitol building and grounds, the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed controversial legislation that reduces the power of labor unions in the state. Michigan was the birthplace of the United Auto Workers union and also the scene of some of the worst violence in the last century that pitted organized labor against companies such as Ford and General Motors. In Michigan, approximately 18 percent of working people are now represented by labor unions, one of the highest percentages in the country and the second-highest in the Midwest.
Once it is signed, the legislation will bar both public and private sector union workers (with the exception of police and firefighters) from being required to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
At least two school districts in the state announced closings, thus allowing school teachers to join other organized labor at the protests. Reportedly, many teachers from other districts used paid sick-leave to attend the rally.
Republicans in the state House moved quickly to pass the measures as union demonstrators outside the capitol building chanted to the beat of drums, “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” The first bill, which related to public sector employees, was approved by a 58-to-51 vote, was greeted by jeers from union sympathizers, “Recall! Recall! Recall!” Republicans hold a 64-to-46 majority in the state House, and the bill passed along generally party lines. A similar bill covering private sector unions was passed by the House later by a 58-to-52 vote.
The two bills in question have already been approved by the Michigan Senate, while Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has said he will sign the legislation soon. Democrats may still engage in delay tactics on December 12. A delegation of Democrats representing Michigan in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives met with the governor on December 10 in an attempt to dissuade him from signing the legislation. Labor leaders, such as Teamster James Hoffa, were among the protesters on December 11, while Jesse Jackson, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Sen. Gretchen Whitmer spoke outside of Lansing City Hall. “Right-to-work laws mean right to work for less. More work and less wages. More work and less protection. More work and less benefits," Jackson said.
Protesters, many of whom wore red shirts to identify themselves, began showing up at the state capitol as early as 4 AM. A crowd of several hundred soon swelled to several thousand, with as many as 2,500 people thronging within the capitol building. On December 6, state troopers largely prevented protesters from entering the historic building, citing safety concerns that were validated by a local judge. However, differences with the protesters were ironed out and a largely festive but at times raucous mood reigned among them in the building. According to local media, some 10,000 people came to the December 11 rally. Protesters carried banners, placards, and other marks identifying themselves as members of the UAW, Teamsters, as well as teachers’ unions. A spokesperson for the Michigan State Police said that two persons have been arrested after attempting to enter the capitol.
Long a stronghold of organized labor, the December 6 move in Michigan by Gov. Snyder and his Republican allies appeared to come as a surprise to unions. After at least two decades of economic stagnation, plant closings, and outmigration, labor unions and the Democratic party shout to revive collective bargaining in a November ballot referendum. The effort to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution, however, failed when placed on the ballot. Michigan now finds itself to become the 24th state to pass right-to-work legislation and the second in a decade. Gov. Snyder had recently cited the example of neighboring Indiana, which now has right-to-work laws in place, and blamed an economic environment hostile to business due to collective bargaining in Michigan.
Streets around the capitol were closed to traffic, while police and sheriff deputies were stationed at posts throughout the building and along the thoroughfares. Some police were in riot gear, while others were mounted on horses. Pepper spray was used by police on protesters at least once, according to the Michigan State police, as tensions mounted and a trooper was jostled by the crowd.
Police on horseback entered into an affray at about 12 noon when a group of pro-union protesters reportedly pulled down a large tent erect by Americans for Prosperity of Michigan, which had reserved the space in support of the right-to-work legislation. Local media noted that men were seen pulling tent stakes out of the ground, causing the tent to collapse. "We had been contacted by that group that they had three or four people that were actually trapped underneath the tent," said Lt. Mike Shaw. "Two of them were in wheelchairs and there was also a propane tank in there. So we had to send troopers out, and naturally, the crowd was not too receptive." See video here.
The mounted troopers were heckled by protesters who called them ‘scabs’ and prevented them from reaching the tent. Scott Hagerstrom of AFP-Michigan said his group had already ceded its reserved spot when protesters began ripping out support wires holding up the tent. "They couldn't engage in a civil debate, and it's very unfortunate," Hagestrom said. “My computer's in here somewhere. More importantly, there were people inside, but I think we got everyone safe.” State police did not arrest anyone in this incident.
Outside of organized labor, Michiganders appear somewhat conflicted about right-to-work laws. Rick Pluta of Michigan Radio observed, “The fact is union membership has typically dropped off in the other 23 states that have adopted ‘right-to-work’ laws.” James Hohman of the pro-business Mackinac Center, based in conservative western Michigan, wrote on his blog, “The fact that unionization is down is true. But adopting a RTW law, counterintuitively, does not seem to impact the rates of unionization. Unionization across the country is down, and there seem to be no difference in these trends between right-to-work and non-right-to-work states.”
Democrats around the country have condemned the Republicans’ move in Michigan. Seeking to rally Michigan’s Democrats, the party’s Facebook page called for the faithful to rally in Lansing. “This past Thursday, Republican legislators passed the worst anti-union legislation Michigan has ever seen,” said a statement on the Facebook page. A Democrat in the state legislature appeared to predict violence as a result of the legislation. “There will be blood,” said State Representative Douglas Geiss from the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives on December 11. “I really wish we had not gone here,” Geiss warned. “It is the leadership in this house that has led us here. The same leadership that tried to throw a bomb right on election day, leading to a member switching parties, and came in at the 11th hour with a gotcha bill. For that, I do not see solace, I do not see peace.”
Visiting the Detroit area on December 10, President Barack Obama said “You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have to do with economics,” adding “They have everything to lose."