ACLU & unions sue Michigan over right-to-work law

Michigan taxpayers are footing the bill in excess of $1 million for eight days of protests as the legislator passed an anti-labor bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union joined labor unions in Michigan lawsuit to challenge the so-called right-to-work law passed in Michigan. According to an ACLU news release, the lawsuit contends that the law was passed in December 2012 “while the public was locked out of the Capitol in violation of the Open Meetings Act, the First Amendment, and the Michigan Constitution.” Furthermore, contends the ACLU, the law is “an unprecedented assault on democracy, deprived the public of their right to participate in the legislative process.”

“Rushing controversial bills through a lame duck session is a bad way to make public policy under the best of circumstances; doing so on such important issues while the public is shut out of the debate every step of the way is illegal and shameful,” said Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary L. Moss. “We have a sacred right to peacefully assemble and petition our government. When there is dissent and emotions are running high, our elected leaders should encourage more open debate, not close the doors to concerned voters.”
 
Attorneys from ACLU/ Michigan, MEA, UAW, and the law firms of White, Schneider, Young & Chiodini; Sachs Waldman; and Pitt McGehee Palmer Rivers & Golden, filed an amended complaint on January 31 seeking to invalidate the law. The case is currently before Ingham County Judge William E. Collette.
 
Michigan Educators’ Association President Steven Cook said, "We're confident the courts will agree that the Legislature's actions on the afternoon of Dec. 6 constituted a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act and should be invalidated." The MEA is party to the suit, as is the AFL-CIO, and Change to Win: a consortium of various labor unions, including Teamsters, United Farmworkers, Service Employees International Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers. Teamster leader James P. Hoffa is general president of Change to Win. 
 
It was on December 6, 2012, that the doors of Michigan’s capitol building in Lansing were closed as state legislators voted on the bill that was ultimately signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. The law makes it illegal for employers to require public- and private-sector workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
 The ACLU contends that the doors were locked to prevent additional people from coming to witness or engage their legislators while the controversial right-to-work bills were being debated on the House and Senate floors. The ACLU says “The public, including some journalists, were locked out for more than four hours while legislators debated and voted on the bills. While individuals already in the Capitol could stay, people waiting outside were not allowed to enter. In addition, the galleries overlooking the House floor were intentionally packed with legislative staffers so that the public would not be allowed in.”
 
Michigan State Police were on hand to keep order, being deployed throughout the Capitol building during the vote. State and local police, joined by sheriff’s deputies, were also prominent in quelling resulting protests. Several arrests of protesters, mostly union members, were made. There were also incidents that drew criticism of the protesters’ tactics: for example, a tent erected by a group in favor of right-to-work legislation was trampled by protesters. A photographer for Speroforum was also assaulted.
 
Gov. Snyder has asked the Michigan Supreme Court to rule directly on the constitutionality of the right-to-work law, rather than wait for cases to make their way from lower courts. The right-to-work law, which is to take effect March 27, makes it illegal to require financial support of a union as a condition of employment. The ACLU lawsuit does not take issue with the substance of the bill per se, but addresses an appropriation added to the bill that makes it immune from a public referendum.  The governor seeks to know whether the bill interferes with the constitutional authority of the Michigan Civil Service Commission and whether it is in violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution, since it specifically exempts police and firefighters.
 
According to the lawsuit, the lockout at the Capitol allowed the legislators to pass bills without sufficient public input. The ACLU says that the bills “bills were abruptly introduced during the last days of the lame-duck legislative session, already a period of diminished public accountability. Rather than allowing the bills to go through the standard committee hearing process where the public would have been invited to comment, the right-to-work language was introduced for the first time on the House and Senate floors on the same day the bills were passed.” Gov. Snyder, who once gave indications that he did not intend to pursue right-to-work legislation, has been criticized by some observers who apparently flip-flopping on the issue.
 
The lawsuit is being brought under the Open Meetings Act, a state law that was enacted to ensure that our government remains transparent and accountable to the public.  The Open Meetings Act provides that the laws and acts of a public body may be invalidated by a court when official meetings, deliberations, or votes are held in a place that was not open and accessible to the public.  In addition, the coalition alleges that the closure of the Michigan Capitol “prevented citizens from exercising their First Amendment right to petition the government and their right under the Michigan Constitution to instruct their representatives.”
 
To read the complaint, go here.
 
The controversial legislation was passed by the Michigan House of Representatives and signed by Gov. Snyder in just two session days. The bills were met with raucous protests on the part of some 12,000 people on the Capitol grounds who were met with mounted officers and riot control on the day passed. State Police closed the Capitol for a couple of hours, citing safety concerns. Republican state Senator Mike Shirkey said that the Michigan Legislature had no part in shutting down the Capitol during the right-to-work debate and should not be punished. Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) said that by the time final votes were taken, the Capitol had reopened.
 
The massive demonstrations at the Capitol in December 2013 reportedly cost Michigan taxpayers nearly $1 million for State Police protection. Between December 5 and December 12, Michigan State Police spent $901,132 on overtime pay and other miscellaneous costs because of additional security brought to the Capitol. Law enforcement agencies from the city of Lansing and Ingham County were also involved in providing security during the right-to-work demonstrations, but total costs for those operations are not yet available. Lansing city police alone spent $31,405, but other law enforcement agencies told the Lansing State Journal they are not calculating their costs and none are seeking reimbursement from the state of Michigan. 
 
For eight days, hundreds of officers were at the Capitol and environs as legislators introduced and then passed the right-to-work legislation. There are reports that troopers provided in an excess of 13,600 man-hours, including at least 4,400 hours of overtime. Estimates in the media show that the state police  spent $802,956 on troopers’ overtime pay and $98,176 on supplies and travel costs related to move troopers from elsewhere in the Mitten State. The State Police spent $464,317 in ordinary expenses that were already accounted for in the annual budget. It is yet to be determined how the State Police will pay for the extra $901,000 in expenses, according to a State police official, which have outstripped the State Police overtime budget.
 
The State Police were on hand at the Michigan Capitol for eight straight days, while the biggest demonstrations raged for only two of them, with relatively minor protests in between. The protests reached their climax on December 11, when approximately 12,500 people gathered on the Capitol grounds.
 
State Police officials declared that the costs to Michigan taxpayers were much less than the money spent at Wisconsin’s capital two years ago, where the Badger State’s legislature contended with throngs of protestors who occupied the Capitol Building in Madison. The state of Wisconsin spent $8 million to provide extra security in Madison during protests against a right-to-work law there.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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