LANSING — Thousands of angry protesters flooded the state capitol on Tuesday but couldn’t deter Gov. Rick Snyder from signing legislation to make Michigan a right-to-work state, a significant blow to unions in a state that has long had organized labor woven in the the fabric of its economy.
The lame-duck, Republican-controlled state legislature was able to push through two right-to-work measures in less than a week, adding to the furor of union supporters.
“They've got the hammer and they're going to beat us with it,” said Dave Rutz, a Muskegon resident and member of the Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 7 in Lansing.
While the Michigan House debated the two laws — one dealing with unions for public employees and one dealing with unions for private sector workers — some 10,000 protesters marched through Lansing and surrounded the capitol building, beating makeshift drums, ringing cowbells, blowing whistles, and chanting pro-union slogans.
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Proponents of the measures, which give workers a choice on whether or not to join a union and ban requirements that nonunion employees pay union dues, say the new laws will make Michigan more competitive and help entice economic investment. They also say it gives workers more freedom.
“This is about freedom, fairness, and equality,” House Speaker Jase Bolger (R., Kalamazoo) said during floor debate. “These are basic American rights — rights that should unite us.”
About 17.5 percent of employees in Michigan currently belong to a union.
After the vote, Mr. Bolger said, Michigan's future “has never been brighter, because workers are free.”
But union members and their supporters say the rules are a sneaky way of busting unions by choking off the funds they use to support political candidates and to help pay for costly negotiations.
“It doesn't create jobs, it cuts wages,” Mr. Rutz said. “That might create jobs in the long run, but in the short term it’s not going to create a job. It’s going to cut wage and benefits and unfund the only opposition they have.”
Many protesters on Tuesday said they felt the vote was payback for the union’s re-election support for President Obama. Mr. Obama won Michigan with relative ease in November.
They also directed much of their venom at Mr. Snyder, who previously said right-to-work legislation was not on his agenda. But last week the governor did an about-face and pledged to sign the bills, should they reach his desk. And he did just that yesterday a few hours after the bills were aproved by the House.
Tom Mossner, a Frankenmuth resident who works at a General Motors plant in Bay City, carried a sign comparing the governor's actions to the grinch stealing Christmas.
“This says it all right here,” he said as he hoisted the sign higher.
Mr. Mossner said the protest is about sending a message to Michigan Republicans.
“We don’t need this in the state of Michigan. Never did and never will. This is an automotive state. We’ve built automobiles here for years and we want to continue doing it at a reasonable pay rate,” he said. “By letting this go through, the quality of our parts are not going to be as good. Nobody’s going to want to work for that kind of money.”
There was a heavy police presence, but the protests were mostly peaceful. There were a few isolated incidents of clashes between protesters and police.
Michigan State Police said pepper spray was used to subdue one protester outside the Capitol who had his hands on a trooper.
Capt. Harold Love says the female trooper was being pulled into a crowd Tuesday. Love says a male trooper standing nearby gave two short bursts of pepper spray to end the incident. There was no arrest.
Captain Love says two people were arrested when they tried to get into the George Romney Building, a state office building that was closed.
On the Capitol grounds, a big white tent erected for supporters of the legislation collapsed. There were no injuries, but union protesters reportedly helped bring down the tent.
About 60 members from UAW Local 723 in Monroe made the trip to Lansing. Though there was limited access to actually get inside the Capitol building, union president Bob Cebina said he’d received text messages from a few who made it in to watch the floor debate.
Mr. Cebina praised the strong showing from union members.
“I think it's great,” he said. “I'm glad to see the people come out to try to right the wrongdoing by our legislature.”
Like many, Mr. Cebina took almost as much issue with the way the legislation came about as he did with the legislation’s substance.
“It was a sham. It was wrong for them to do it without any discussion or tabling it until they had time to discuss it. There were better ways of doing this,” he said.
While union supporters made it clear the battle over Michigan becoming the nation’s 24th state with right-to-work laws was nowhere near over, they also expressed worry that what they see as attacks on the unions and middle class will continue.
Amy Kotsch, a teacher from Kingston, Mich., worried the right-to-work legislation is just the tip of the iceberg. She said lawmakers need to know they’re seriously irritating many of their constituents with the vote.
“If they’re going to be really representing the people of Michigan, they need to understand how many people do believe in the power of the union and think that’s an important right we have,” she said.
Teachers’ unions had a noticeably strong presence Tuesday. Two districts were closed Tuesday because of the large number of teachers who planned to attend the protests. Mike Ingels, a sixth and seventh-grade teacher at Addison Middle School in Adrian didn't have to call off. His school was closed because of a water leak.
He said the last week’s maneuvers show moderation is dead. He vowed to keep fighting against what he sees as Republican efforts to weaken unions.
“They’re trying to destroy the opposition. This is not anything more than that. They have an advantage, they can do it, they can kill the opposition. That’s what they’re trying to do. But I’m not planning to leave,” he said.
Charlotte, Mich., resident Kirk Newland held a sign outside the building and watched the shouting.
“We just want our voices to be heard. The way they did it is my biggest problem,” he said. “They locked the doors and put it through a lame duck congress. Why not do it out in the open. We can vote on whether we can use medical marijuana in Michigan, but we can’t vote on this.”
He and many others predicted political repercussions throughout the state in response to the new law.
Lawmakers who backed the bills "will be held accountable at the ballot box in 2014," said state Rep. Tim Greimel, the incoming House Democratic leader.