Stakes are high in Michigan

March 28, 2011

Jeff Bale reports from Michigan's capital on the new Republican governor's savage assault on working people--and the state of the struggle to stop him.

SINCE MID-January, the spotlight has been on Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker's open assault on union rights, his draconian budget and the historic, inspiring fightback that captured the nation's attention.

Today, the stakes are just as high in Michigan.

Republican Rick Snyder was elected governor last November by an overwhelming margin. A former executive at Gateway computers, Snyder didn't have much to say during the campaign about how he would "fix" Michigan's economy. But now that he's in office, the fix is in. Facing a $1.8 billion state budget deficit, Snyder's primary proposal is to cut taxes on corporations.

Cutting corporate taxes in the face of a huge deficit is one indication that the economic crisis in Michigan has been completely manufactured. The other is to look at the overall state of Michigan's economy for the 10 ten years. Adjusted for inflation, the overall size of the state's economy in 2010 was only a few percentage points off 2000 levels. Yet obsessive tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations have meant that revenues have fallen over 40 percent across the same period. In other words, even in crisis-beset Michigan, there is plenty of money.

Michigan workers and students protest Gov. Rick Snyder's radical austerity measures
Michigan workers and students protest Gov. Rick Snyder's radical austerity measures (Peace Education Center)

The budget crisis is clearly a sham, but the attacks that Snyder is waging on working Michiganders are all too real. His budget will cut K-12 per-pupil funding by at least $470; cut funding to universities by 15 percent, on top of double-digit reductions over the last three years; cut the Earned Income Tax Credit that benefits the poor; and tax pension income, which will hurt the elderly.

In other words, Michigan's students, poor and elderly have do with less so that its corporate bosses can do with more.

SNYDER HAS earned his own share of national headlines, but not necessarily because of his draconian budget. Rather, it is because he proposed and rammed through a policy so un-democratic that it puts Walker's attacks on collective bargaining rights to shame.

Called the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) bill, it gives the governor authority to declare any town or city bankrupt and install an emergency financial manager. That manager would replace the town council and mayor, and would have authority to cancel all contracts, including union contracts, and impose any measure deemed necessary to balance the budget.

The irony that a conservative governor espousing "limited government" has pushed the biggest of "big government" policies was not lost on many Michiganders. In fact, it forced the largest trade unions in Michigan into action.

On Wednesday, March 16, some 6,000 unionists, students and their supporters rallied at the state Capitol. While many raised objections to Snyder's budget, it was the EFM bill that brought out most people.

The afternoon was actually a collection of three rallies sponsored by various unions--building trades, nurses, auto workers, teachers, graduate students, etc. Each rally drew a couple thousand protesters, with significant numbers staying for all three events. Despite the large turnout, though, the state House passed the EFM bill while the rallies took place.

The demonstrations were easily the largest and most vocal since the Tent Cities were set up at the Capitol in the early 1990s to protest then-Gov. John Engler's welfare cuts.

The union rallies built on a demonstration the day before sponsored by the American Association of Retired People, which drew out some 1,500 people. In between the rallies, protesters crammed into the Capitol rotunda, clearly inspired by the occupation and rallies inside Wisconsin's state Capitol. Besides lots of chanting, though, the main purpose was to meet with local state representatives and lobby them to vote against the EFM bill.

The third rally, sponsored by the Michigan Education Association, the main teachers' union in the state, gave a sense of the mix of politics on display. On the one hand, one Lansing teacher and union activist proudly waved a "Wisconsin fist" flag he had brought back from the big demonstration in Madison the previous weekend. He and some 200 fellow Lansing teachers traveled on a bus chartered by the union to attend the rally in Madison.

Many teachers said in interviews that the teacher sick-outs in Wisconsin and the scale of the fightback made it much easier to convince their co-workers to attend the rally in Lansing. Moreover, speakers from the front of the rallies, including Lansing's Mayor Virg Bernero and several union leaders, spoke to protesters' anger by leading chants of "This is our house!"

At the same time, however, these rallies were organized entirely by the union leadership. Labor put significant resources into busing its members in from all over the state, feeding people while there and so on. But at the same time, the political message coming from the front of the union-doinated rally was narrow: go into the Capitol, yes; but not to occupy it as was done in Madison, but to lobby. Another message was to get out the vote to recall Snyder and other newly elected Republican state representatives.

Because of this narrow basis for organizing this rally, many of the same teachers who mentioned the sick-outs in Wisconsin as inspiring and useful for turning out their coworkers also stated that they thought sick-outs or other job actions in Michigan were out of the question.

As the third rally drew to a close, a few dozen protesters entered the Capitol again before the 5:30 p.m. closing time. Many were there with the intention of starting an occupation like the ones in Madison. However, once the doors were locked shut at closing time, protesters faced a very different situation from what happened in Madison. Instead of hundreds on the inside supported by thousands on the outside--including thousands of unionists--there were only some 50 people left in the rotunda, with a couple hundred outside when the doors were locked.

Moreover, the unions had never stated any intention of supporting or leading an occupation, which means that when the rally was over, many union members in attendance simply left. Protesters took a vote inside the rotunda whether it was worth getting arrested, and all but five left. The five who remained were promptly arrested. As police took them away, another nine people outside the capitol were arrested as well.

A week later, several student organizations called for another rally at the Capitol to protest the massive budget cuts facing K-12 and higher education programs. The rally drew out a few hundred students, who rallied on the capitol steps and then led chants inside the rotunda for a few hours. The Michigan Nurses Association has also called for a rally for next week.

Clearly, the stakes are high in Michigan. Many union and student activists have taken inspiration from the fightback in Wisconsin. At the same time, the decades-long level of economic crisis in the state, coupled with a passive union movement, mean that we are in the first stages of rebuilding the sort of networks of activists and rank-and-file union members that can push the struggle to the left.

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