Michigan’s House first raised some eyebrows last month when it passed the “Emergency Financial Manager” bill, which states that in the case of an economic crisis, the governor has the authority to authorize “emergency managers” to reject, modify or terminate the terms of any existing contracts or collective bargaining agreements, and dissolve local governing bodies of schools and cities.
Naturally, unions and pro-democratic activists were up in arms when the “financial martial law bill,” as some called it, passed. Thousands turned out to protest what is widely viewed as an authoritarian power grab by Governor Snyder. But up until very recently, the effect of such a bill was largely speculative. The scope of Snyder’s new power couldn’t be fully understood until he decided to flex his muscle in an impoverished former industrial town called Benton Harbor.
The Michigan town is very much in economic crisis—as is, one could argue, most of the country. Crises are wonderful opportunities for the political and financial elites who are always searching for convenient excuses to exploit already chaotic situations for their own personal gains and ideologies. Author Naomi Klein dubbed this the “shock doctrine.”
First, one of Snyder’s state-appointed Emergency Managers, Robert Bobb, issued a layoff notice to all of Detroit’s 5,466 public school teachers. Soon after, another EM, Joe Harris, used his expanded powers granted by the new law to issue an order banning the city commission from taking any action without his written permission. Now, while it is unlikely that all of Detroit’s teachers will be fired, what is clear is that the EMs intend to exercise the maximum amount of authority granted to them under this new law.
“I fully intend to use the authority that was granted under Public Act 4,” Bobb said.
Benton Harbor City Commissioner Juanita Henry feels like her town is being used as a test case. “If they have disenfranchised the people so badly they just don’t respond to anything, they can do this all over the country,” she says.
What’s happening in Benton Harbor is raising great concern in other Michigan communities. The budget battles and cut protests are intimately linked to Snyder’s power grab because the former are usually used as an excuse to implement the latter. Snyder and the EMs first claim there is an economic crisis—an undeniable need to slash social spending and levy cruel austerity measures on the poor. Then, Snyder uses the inevitable chaos as an excuse to dissolve democratically elected bodies and appoint henchmen to further strangle the communities and force them to accept even more austerity.
Michigan activists are now working to repeal the law. A group called Heartland Revolution is planning to rally at the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce and march to City Hall on Wednesday, April 27, to protest the takeover. Also, a Facebook page called “A Referendum to Reject PA 4” has quadrupled in size in twenty-four hours, according to Traverse City activist Betsy Coffia.
In order to have a referendum on a newly enacted law, petitioners must gather signatures from 161,305 people, or 5 percent of the number that voted in the last gubernatorial election, the Michigan Messenger reports. The signatures must be submitted within ninety days of the end of the legislative session in which the bill was passed.