Tension is not unusual in this city.
Over 10,000 union supporters could not stop the passage of "right to work" legislation that was passed by Michigan lawmakers on December 11. Up until a week ago, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said he opposed the bill, but he changed his mind and pushed the bill through a lame duck House in record time. Teamster president James Hoffa was not surprised. "This push to get the right to work law was funded by Amway, Karl Rove, and the Koch brothers."
Union members gathered early Tuesday morning to march on the Capitol despite freezing temperatures and snow flurries. En route they chanted, "This is what Democracy looks like" and "Whose streets? Our streets," slogans recently heard during Occupy Wall Street marches.
Union member Dan Clark stood with a mock coffin in front of the capitol. "If the governor signs the bill, then today will be the first day in the fight to overturn it," he said.
Inside the state capitol, protesters practiced civil disobedience, sitting down in the middle of the rotunda. Jesse Jackson, Democratic Michigan senator Gretchen Whitmer and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero expressed gratitude for those who turned out.
"It is a shameful day in Michigan's history," said Whitmer. "This governor has lied to the people for two years. He does an about face and then pushes through the most divisive legislation and in that way tramples on everyone's right to have a voice in this process. It is absolutely disgusting and we are going to continue to fight. This fight is not over."
Beth Young, a member of the Plumbers and Fitters union for 28 years, said she knew Tuesday's action wouldn't stop Snyder from signing the bill into law "but at least I came out here and stood up and am not sitting on my hands." Michigan, she said, was just starting to recover from hard economic times but this law will erase the gains.
Ron Estrada, of United Auto Workers Local 160, pointed out that Michigan is the birthplace of the union, the last place this should happen. "To be attacked by industry makes no sense. Who will buy the products they make when they no longer make a decent wage?" Christie Medina, trustee for local 602, moved to Michigan from Tennessee, a right to work state where she saw people got fired for no reason and those working got lower wages -- "so low no one can buy a home or car," she said. "People are forced to eat unhealthy food because they can't afford fresh fruit and vegetables," she said. It saddens her that this is what Michigan will now face.
Dannielle McGuire said passage of Right to Work legislation is Snyder's way to get back at the unions after they got Proposal 2 on the ballot to make collective bargaining a state constitutional right. The proposal failed. Synder said that Prop 2 was unnecessary and made him rethink his position on right to work.
Retried teacher Ray Chappa pointed out that the day's events were inspired by the Occupy movement, which has brought into focus the disparity between the 1% and the 99%. "The right to work law is an attack on the middle class," Chappa said, "and the 99% need to resist."
Julie Dermansky is a photojournalist.
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