It really happened. And in Michigan, of all places.
On December 6, 2012, Republicans in the Michigan state legislature rammed through two so-called “right to work” (RTW) bills during a lame-duck session with the potential (and, arguably, the intent) to decimate organized labor in a state whose prosperity through the better part of the 20th century was built on unionism, a tradition that was hard fought and bravely won.
On December 11, 2012, GOP Governor Rick Snyder signed these bills into law.
Because the lame-duck GOP could not muster the two-thirds majority required for the acts to take effect immediately, there was a constitutionally mandated waiting period of 90 days from the end of the session at which the measure was enacted.
That 90 days is up today, March 28, 2013, a date that is sure to go down as one of the darkest for people in Michigan who have to work for a living, which is of course the overwhelming majority of us. It is also likely to have repercussions for working people nationwide.
I am writing this post as a citizen. I also happen to be the vice president of the faculty union at the university where I am employed as a professor of linguistics. In my capacity as VP of our chapter of the American Association of University Professors, I write a blog about labor issues of interest to my faculty colleagues, and at some point in the near future, I will write a post to address some of the issues I am getting into here.
But right now, I want to write simply in my capacity as a pissed-off citizen of a once-great state with a once-thriving middle class where upward mobility was for a long time during the last century a real possibility for regular people who weren’t born rich and who have to work for a living.
I say “rammed through,” because the GOP-controlled legislature bypassed the standard committee hearing process and was closed to public comment. Citizens were literally locked out of the Capitol while the bills were debated and voted on. “You’re doing this in lame duck because you know next session, you won’t have the votes,” objected Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids). “This is an outrage.”
It was indeed, in all kinds of ways. Police, who along with firefighters are exempted from RTW initially claimed that the building was over capacity but later changed their story to claim that there were safety concerns over fears that the crowd would become “unruly.” Peaceful protestors – also known as citizens and taxpayers — were arrested and maced during demonstrations that drew thousands on December 6, the day the legislature took up the bills.
I thought it would seem obvious to any thinking person that when people living off the fat of the state payroll abuse their positions in ways that threaten people’s livelihoods and economic well-being, said people are likely to get pretty righteously pissed off.
As egregious and anti-democratic as this whole fiasco was, what is even worse is that the sponsors of the bills made sure to include an appropriations provision in order to make them referendum-proof and therefore repeal-proof. Lame-duck session. No public hearings. No chance for referendum.
According to the Lansing State Journal:
Republicans, who are ushering right to work through the Legislature during the lame-duck session, said the appropriation is nothing unusual.Democrats and union leaders say it’s a political tactic aimed at minimizing dissent on the controversial legislation.
Each of the right-to-work bills includes language to give the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs $1 million for this fiscal year. According to the bills, the funding would be earmarked for administrative costs associated with implementing and enforcing right to work and educating the public about the labor law. (My emphasis.)
That’s right: A million dollars in each bill. Two million dollars for “administrative costs associated with implementing and enforcing right to work and educating the public about the labor law.” That’s two million dollars of the taxpayers’ money to spend on promoting highly unpopular legislation signed into law by an increasingly unpopular governor. Two million dollars that won’t be going to improve Michigan’s badly deteriorating infrastructures, or to bolster education, or to createjobs. Apparently, Michigan can afford to spend $2 million on “right-to-work” propaganda on behalf of the deep pockets who bought and paid for these bills in the first place by buying themselves a state legislature. Of course they can afford to pay for the propaganda themselves. It’s not like they haven’t done it before. But why should they, when they can mooch off the rest of us?
Thousands of protestors returned to Lansing on December 11, the day the governor was expected to sign the bills into law. The crowd included a lot of faculty and staff from my university. We have long been a strong union campus with seven employee bargaining units in all, including local chapters of the American Association of University Professors, AFSCME, and two affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers representing part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants. And alongside instructional staff were landscape workers, maintenance workers, technicians of all stripes, food-service workers, and custodial workers.
We joined thousands of friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We marched alongside nurses, auto workers, K-12 teachers, electricians, construction workers. The UAW was there, and so were the Teamsters, the United Farm Workers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Service Workers International, the Building and Trades Council, and many others. Thousands of us marched in Lansing on that frigid, windy December day. Thousands more phoned and emailed the governor to try to get him to listen to reason, to implore him not to sign the bills.
Like many others that day, I was taking pictures with my phone and posting updates to Facebook:
Cops in riot gear seem to want us out of here. This is our house!
2:29 p.m. on December 11, 2012.
Gov. hasn’t signed anything yet acc to Capitol staff. Call him now and tell him to veto the RTW bills!
3:01 p.m. on December 11, 2012.
Some time later, a friend posted this comment on my thread:
I don’t know where you were. They gassed and arrested a bunch of people outside the Romney building…totally unprovoked. I was right there.
4:52 p.m. on December 11, 2012.
And finally, I posted my last update of the day:
Damn him. He signed the bills. Damn him.
6:01 p.m. on December 11, 2012.
Gov. Snyder had previously said on numerous occasions that RTW “wasn’t a priority” because he felt (rightly) that it was “too divisive an issue in difficult economic times.” As recently as September 2012, he said that RTW “is not on my agenda.” When he pledged to sign the lame-duck bills, the Detroit Free Press called him out in a scathing and right-on-the-money editorial, under the headline “A Failure of Leadership: Snyder’s About-Face on Right-to-Work Betrays Voters”:
Two years ago, a newly elected Rick Snyder told the Free Press editorial board he was determined to be a new kind of governor — a pragmatist focused like a laser on initiatives that promised to raise standards of living for all Michiganders.And until last week, we believed him.
Watching Snyder explain his right-to-work reversal was disturbing on several levels.
His insistence that the legislation was designed to promote the interests of unionized workers and “bring Michiganders together” was grotesquely disingenuous; even as he spoke, security personnel were locking down the capital in anticipation of protests by angry unionists.
Snyder’s ostensible rationale for embracing right-to-work legislation — it was, he insisted, a matter of preserving workers’ freedom of association — was equally dishonest.
The real motive of Michigan’s right-to-work champions, as former GOP legislator Bill Ballenger ruefully observed, is “pure greed” — the determination to emasculate, once and for all, the Democratic Party’s most reliable source of financial and organizational support.
Snyder’s closest brush with candor came when he suggested that his endorsement of right-to-work was less than voluntary — a decision “that was on the table whether I wanted it to be on the table or not.”
But that is less an excuse than a confession that Michigan’s governor has abdicated his leadership responsibilities to Republican legislators bent on vengeance.
On MSNBC the evening of December 11, Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing) spoke for a lot of us in the Great Lakes state:
“It is absolutely repulsive,” said Whitmer, “that this governor is such a coward he had to announce it from behind locked doors, cut off debate, lock people out of the capitol, and now he`s signed it behind a wall of armed police officers. You know why he`s doing that? Because he knows the public disagrees on this one and he is dead wrong.”
That was then.
And now 90 days have passed, and RTW is now the law in Michigan.
A lot of my colleagues are asking what RTW is going to mean for us. Our current contract expires on September 6, 2014, and on that day, the board-appointed faculty at Western Michigan University will after 38 years no longer have an agency shop. The other unions on our campus will lose their agency-shop status as their contracts expire over the next three years.
I don’t have good answers to their questions yet. I don’t know that anyone does. Lawyers and labor experts have yet to figure out what all this is eventually going to mean for workers in Michigan and beyond. But the outlook isn’t good.
I am going to stop writing now, even though I still have not said what I came here to say, even though by now it was yesterday morning when I woke up in a “right-to-work” state.
I came to write about the constitutional right of these universities to institutional autonomy, vested in our boards of trustees, and how the state constitution is being subverted by those who are sworn to uphold it.
I came here to write about how we need to get to work on doing everything we can to dismantle a corrupt system that has made it possible for ignorant, thoughtless assholes to run this magnificent state into the ground, all the while enjoying seats in the legislature that are safe until the sun goes supernova, in a state that is gerrymandered to within inches of its life, bankrolled by heartless assholes who don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves.
I will come back and say all of those things and a lot more very soon. But tonight I am just too sad.