While thousands of union workers and their supporters protested outside the Michigan Capitol Tuesday, Governor Rick Snyder signed into law two bills that dramatically limit labor rights.
“This isn’t about us versus them. This about Michiganders,” Snyder said at a news conference in which he announced signing the legislation.
However, the events unfolding outside and inside the Capitol couldn’t have contradicted his statement more sharply. A very real ideological battle is occurring in Michigan right now between labor and the forces that wish to destroy the power of collective bargaining.
From the first rumblings of a potential protest within the Capitol, law enforcement officials have made it very clear they don’t intend to allow Michigan to become another Wisconsin, and police donning riot gear and armed with tear gas canisters, pepper spray and batons patrolled the corridors, determined to prevent a similar occupation to the one that lasted in the Wisconsin Capitol for nearly three weeks. (photo by @JeffRae)
State Police officials confirmed that one of their troopers used pepper spray on a protester (the AP bizarrely reports the pepper spray was used to “calm the protester”), and even though police claim the man “grabbed a trooper,” he wasn’t arrested. Two other people were arrested after they reportedly tried to force their way into another building on the grounds where Snyder has offices.
Mark Schauer, a Democrat who previously represented the state in the US House, told Lansing news services MIRS that he was pepper-sprayed in a separate incident while protesting.[…]
“Unfortunately while people were exercising their first amendment rights, I among them got pepper sprayed by police officers,” Schauer said in a MIRS video. “We were not endangering the building in any way but we wanted to make sure, since the Republicans have not provided for any public hearings or opportunities for people to speak on these bills, that they can hear how the people really feel. Unfortunately, some of us are paying a price for it.”
Mounted police rode into a crowd of protesters and used the bodies of their horses to push the crowd back as the protesters booed and screamed at the police.
Ryan Knight of Ann Arbor was among those near the front. He got pushed back by a horse, which he said also stepped on him.
“This was a peaceful protest,” he said, holding a protest sign. “I don’t know why they decided to do that.”
Knight said that he is not a member of a union, but came to support them.
(photo by @roopraj)
A tent set up by Americans for Prosperity, a group supporting Snyder’s anti-worker bill and that fronts special interests championed by the oil billionaire David Koch, collapsed during the protest, and there are varying reports explaining the events leading up to the tent falling. Authorities described “pushing and shoving” among protesters before the tent being torn down, while other reports described belligerent behavior from AFP supporters beforehand, including reports that AFP supporters threw pennies at union protesters saying, “Your work isn’t worth these.”
Even though the tent collapse has now been seized by the right-wing media as evidence of “violent union behavior”—one report hilariously described the parties involved as “rabid union members”—authorities report no one was hurt.
AFL-CIO representative Eddie Vale distanced the pro-union supporters from the particular group that was involved in the tent being torn down, but also accused the AFP supporters of being “disciples of James O’Keefe,” who were “attempting to instigate the crowd all day.” Indeed, the few videos that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the incident appear to be heavily edited, with large chunks of footage having obviously been deleted.
Naturally, obsession over an incident in which no one was hurt distracted from the larger purpose of the protest, which is that Michigan has become the twenty-fourth state to adopt laws to prohibit requiring union dues as a condition of employment. Of course, by making the payment of union dues voluntary for private-sector unions, many may opt to save their already meager means instead of paying into a union, thereby further weakening their options to collectively bargaining for things like higher wages, and fulfilling their downward spiral into disempowerment and poverty. Passing so-called right-to-work legislation in Michigan is particularly symbolic given the state’s long history of being the center of American labor activity.
Valerie Constance, a reading instructor for the Wayne County Community College District and member of the American Federation of Teachers, sat on the Capitol steps with a sign shaped like a tombstone. It read: “Here lies democracy.”
“I do think this is a very sad day in Michigan history,” Constance said.
ABC News reports that voters will have the option to invoke a referendum to “approve or reject” the law, and opponents of the law will have ninety days after the legislature adjourns to gather 8 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial race, which were more than 3 million. If they succeed, the law will be placed on the ballot and subject to a statewide vote.