The war on labor in Michigan

December 12, 2012

The mass mobilization to stop "right-to-work-for-less" legislation in Michigan didn't succeed, but it showed the readiness of workers to take action, reports Eric Ruder.

DESPITE THE mobilization of more than 10,000 workers and their supporters to the state Capitol, Michigan--the site of some of the most important struggles of the U.S. labor movement--became the 24th state to pass "right-to-work" legislation on December 11.

Republican lawmakers rammed the anti-union legislation through in the closing days of a lame-duck session--without committee hearings or public input or the least gesture toward democracy and discussion. Right-wing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder immediately signed the bill into law, making Michigan the second Midwestern industrial state this year, after Indiana, to pass such legislation.

A crowd of at least 10,000 surrounded the Capitol on Tuesday, with another 2,500 people inside. Police used the pretext of the building's age to keep a tight rein on the number of protesters allowed inside. With tempers flaring and at least some workers intent on trying to keep the legislators from voting, police used mace and other forms of violence and intimidation to keep most protesters far from the legislature's proceedings.

Workers from across Michigan and the Midwest gather to protest the Republicans' "right-to-work" attack
Workers from across Michigan and the Midwest gather to protest the Republicans' "right-to-work" attack

This led one Republican lawmaker, state Rep. Dave Agema, to gloat about the repression meted out by police. "Riot police on horses are now macing and pushing back the crowds who tried to storm the building," Agema, a loudmouth lawmaker affiliated with the Tea Party, wrote on Facebook. "I feel like I'm back in the military--I'm rather enjoying this. It brings back memories."

He continued: "When riots occur, it's the putting down of inappropriate behavior that is rewarding. That is what we did in the military, but with countries and tyrants."

While Agema and his cronies smirked behind lines of riot police cracking heads, unionists and their supporters kept up spirited protests throughout the day, scuffling with police on horseback who menaced them with batons on several occasions.

Around 11 a.m., a couple hundred angry workers stormed a tent set up by the Americans for Prosperity, tearing it down before police could stop them. When police arrived on horses to clear the area, workers held them off and eventually forced them to retreat. Police on foot again tried to establish control and failed again. "Workers were harassing Tea Party people in the tent," said Jeff Bale, a protester who teaches at Michigan State University, "They tore in half their 'Don't Tread on Me' flag."

At about the same time, however, the legislature was finishing up its votes on the legislation--after defeating attempts by Democrats to derail the law or take out an appropriation clause that makes the bill technically immune from repeal by a statewide referendum.

THERE WAS a clear contrast between the willingness of most workers to fight and the approach taken by the official leaders of the labor movement.

Speaking before 9 a.m. at a rally were several thousand people had already gathered, Karla Swift, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, put the attack on unions in a larger national context. "They think this is just about Michigan," said Swift. "But we know this is about unions nationwide."

Yet Swift seemed to have already conceded that defeat was inevitable--and that the only possible way forward was electoral: to make Republican legislators pay in the 2014 elections. "Today is a day of action to plan ahead for the next two years" was the awkward way she connected the day's demonstrations to labor's electoral strategy.

Dave Hecker, president of the Michigan affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, opened with: ""Today I'm a unionist. Today I'm an activist. Today I'm a voter."

In the same vein, Steven Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association, said: "We can't just have a rally. We have to have action. We have to raise hell tenfold, a hundredfold." But what did "raising hell" mean? "We're going to have to organize over the next two years to take our state back. Today is the first day of that."

As Jeff Bale put it:

It was great to see organized labor participating in civil disobedience in the Capitol today. This is a big step forward from the rallies in 2011 against the Emergency Financial Manager laws and attacks on teacher tenure, at which [United Auto Workers President] Bob King and other labor leaders publicly distanced themselves from the Occupy movement.

But we have to be honest: sitting down on the rotunda floor today made for great pictures, but did nothing to disrupt the smash-and-grab anti-union votes happening in both chambers just feet away. There was plenty of anger among protesters to support a genuine direct action to disrupt the votes. It just wasn't organized.

One sign of the potential for more radical action on Tuesday: Three school districts in the Detroit metro area--Warren, Fitzgerald and Taylor--had to close their doors because so many teachers took leave or called in sick to participate in the protests.

"In one of those school districts," said Bale, "all it took was for the union rep to explain to teachers their options. That sentiment existed throughout the state and could have been tapped into. Unfortunately, that energy and anger went to waste today."

UNION PRIDE runs deep in Michigan, and the defeat came as a shock to generations of Michigan's workers. "Right-to-work" legislation makes it possible for anti-union workers to enjoy the benefits of working in a union-organized workplace without having to pay their fair share of union dues--an idea that union households find particularly odious.

"Our parents, our grandparents and our great grandparents fought and literally died so that we could have better wages, better livelihoods, better benefits and more worker safety," said Ted Copley, a Detroit firefighter. Susan Abraham of Delta Township, who took part in the protest wearing a Mrs. Claus outfit, said: "Our family wouldn't be where it is today without the UAW."

Throughout the day, protesters chanted, "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "Whose Capitol? Our Capitol!" as they headed off in one direction or another.

Later, when the focus shifted to the George W. Romney Building, where Gov. Snyder has his offices, several hundred people sat down in the outdoor lobby and sang "We Shall Not be Moved" and "Solidarity Forever." Police then arrived to clear the area and again struggled to contain the crowd.

As Brit Schulte, a Chicago activist who made the trip to Lansing to take part in the actions, explained:

At the Romney State Building, we were part of a supportive action for the dozen or so union workers, sitting in and blocking the entrances to the building where Gov. Snyder has an office. Police began filing in around the perimeters and then created a split through the center of our crowd.

A member of the IBEW shouted out, "They got a hard hat! They're beating a hard hat!" And those of us tall enough to see could see the police wrestling a worker in a hard hat to the ground. Another voice shouted out, "Everyone sit down!" The majority of the crowd began sitting in and chanted, "Sit!" and "Shame!" at the police...

The police immediately escalated the situation, coming with more force into the crowd, stepping on people and pushing people over. It was clear, though, that they didn't have specific orders and also didn't know how to handle to crowd, because they just stood there in the midst of the crowd for a long while, immobile and without a working plan for dispersal.

An organized effort to occupy the legislature or the state office building might have been successful at this and other points during the day. But it's hard to say, because it wasn't even tried.

Though Michigan's labor movement suffered a defeat, there's no question that the anger produced by this heavy-handed drive to force through anti-worker legislation won't disappear. As unions and their supporters figure out next steps, finding ways to mobilize and build on this anger will be essential.

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