As an estimated 10,000 stood outside in sub-freezing temperatures on the lawn of Michigan's capitol building making clear their opposition to right-to-work legislation, lawmakers inside made national news and history by passing two controversial bills that put Michigan just a step away from becoming a right-to-work state.
The Michigan House approved House Bill 4003 and Senate Bill 116, and they now head to the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder, who has said he will sign them. The bills will ban the practice of workers being forced to pay any money to a union as a condition of employment.
The push for these bills came rapidly and seemingly out of nowhere for most observers during this lame duck session. Snyder had repeatedly said for more than two years that right to work was "not on his agenda," but then Dec. 6 he said he wanted lawmakers to work fast and send him the bills. And 121 hours later, they had.
Shortly before session began, the doors to the Capitol were locked as it had apparently reached its capacity of 2,000, but some protesters were being allowed in as others left.
The noise from the protesters outside and inside could be clearly heard on the House floor as the bills were debated.
There was again a large Michigan State Police presence in the building, with several holding tear gas guns and carrying zip tie handcuffs. Others had baseball bat-sized wooden batons on their belts. They also had riot gear stored inside the building. As of 1 p.m., there had been two arrests, according to Michigan State Police Capt. Harold Love.
"The police presence today is massive and oppressive, clearly designed to intimidate peaceful Michigan citizens who are attempting to exercise their right to free speech," Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer said in a statement. "What Gov. Rick Snyder and House Speaker Jase Bolger have done at the state Capitol looks like a scene out of a Third World dictatorship. This unnecessary, heavy-handed police presence is provocative."
Outside, the crowd was estimated to be as many as 10,000, as union members were chanting and holding signs. Several schools in southeast Michigan were closed for the day as so many teachers called in so they could attend today's protests.
On the lawn there were four large inflatable rats, meant to signify Snyder, Bolger, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville and 2006 Republican gubernatorial nominee Dick DeVos. There was also a large inflatable bald eagle draped in the American flag.
During the debate on the floor, Democrats sought to remove the $1 million appropriation in the bills that make them referendum proof by voters, but Republicans rejected the attempt.
Other Democratic amendments were also shot down. As several members spoke, those in the House gallery cheered them on and had to be reminded by the Speaker Pro Tempore they were not allowed to make any noise.
Democratic Rep. Jon Switalski urged Republicans to pause and take a step back, as the bills were fast tracked and moved onto the governor's desk without a public hearing.
"The next two years are going to be terrible," Switalksi said. "They are going to be ugly."
Democratic Rep. Douglas Geiss said there will be repercussions for passing these bills.
"There will be blood," Geiss said, a comment that soon would headline The Drudge Report website.
As Republicans began to speak out in support of the bills union members seated above the House floor in the gallery heckled them.
"This is a historic day for Michigan workers and the state's economic future," Jared Rodriguez, president of the West Michigan Policy Forum said in a statement. "We have spent four years advocating for a Freedom to Work policy in Michigan on behalf of more than 1,000 business leaders and thousands of workers they represent. Freedom to Work will help show the world Michigan is changing, we are open for business and we will become the best place to live and work in the nation."
When Snyder signs the legislation, Michigan will become the 24th state in the nation to be a right-to-work state.
Bolger ended the roughly hour and a half debate by making many of the points he has made in recent days, that this does not affect collective bargaining, and is not about Democrats versus Republicans. He said this is about giving workers the ability to make a choice.
Today is a game-changer for Michigan, for its workers and for our future," Bolger said.
What's in the bills
- Employees cannot be required to join or financially support a union, even if there is a unionized workforce. The legal right to unionize is not affected, but unions are obligated to represent nonmembers in collective bargaining and in grievance and arbitration proceedings.
- Covers public- and private-sector unions except for firefighters, law enforcement and federal unions.
- Private-sector and public-sector employees have to abide by current contracts until they expire.
Source: Miller Canfield, Crain's research