By Teachers, For Teachers
LANSING, Mich. -- Amid the boos of thousands of protesters as well as the cheers of a smaller group of supporters -- the Michigan House passed two bills Tuesday limiting the rights of unions in the state.
The bill that covers public employees passed 58-51. A second bill covering the private sector received a 58-52 vote, but final passage was delayed until Wednesday. The state Senate approved both bills last Thursday, so the measures' next stop will be Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who has said he will sign them.
The legislation allows workers to choose whether they want to join a union or pay fees that amount to union dues. It prohibits what are known as closed shops, where workers have no choice but to join a union or pay those fees. Once Synder signs it, Michigan will be the 24th state with a law. Republicans in Indiana and Wisconsin most recently pushed through similar laws that also sparked massive protests
"We are witnessing history in the making," said state Rep. Lisa Lyons, a Republican from the Grand Rapids suburb of Alto, Mich. This is the day that Michigan freed its workers."
On the Democratic side, Rep. Paul Clemente, a Democrat from the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, Mich., lamented the partisanship: "What we've lost today is moderation."
Outside, Michigan State Police donned their riot gear as peaceful protests occasionally became testy.
As House members voted, "Shame on you!" echoed across the Capitol lawn among a crowd that had swelled to more than 10,000, the largest public protest that the seat of state government has ever seen.
Troopers formed a line in front of police on horseback and began pushing the charged-up crowd back from the Capitol steps. Officers sprayed tear gas at at least one demonstrator. Two others accused of trying to force their way into the building where the governor has his offices were arrested.
Crowds tore down two large tents that had been set up on the Capitol's front lawn, one for right-to-work supporters, who were greatly outnumbered among the demonstrators, and another for opponents. No one was reported injured.
Earlier, police officers on motorcycles had led hundreds of pro-union marchers from Lansing Convention Center to the Michigan Capitol who chanted, "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Right-to-work has got to go!"
Union members, protesting the role that the governor has had in the passage of the legislation, hoisted a large inflatable rat to the top of the Capitol steps, dubbing it the "Snyder rat." Protesters carried signs with messages such as "Snyder, veto right-to-work" and "Stop the attacks on the middle class."
The right-to-work legislation sped through the state Legislature without public discussion, committee hearings or any Democratic support. .
"I just want to get it done," state Rep. Pete Lund, a Republican from Shelby Township, Mich., about 30 miles north of Detroit, said about passing the legislation as he came into the House chamber before the session started.
"My dad and mom were union workers. Without the contracts they bargained for, we wouldn't have had food on our table or clothes to wear," said Melissa Waters, of Ann Arbor, Mich., as she listened to a pro-union rally outside Lansing City Hall.
Speaker after speaker, including firefighters, teachers and factory workers, vowed today's protest was just the start. They said they would follow legislators all over the state to remind people of their votes.
Ray Litt stood on the sidelines outside the Capitol, holding a sign that perfectly portrayed his feelings: "Gov. Snyder, Shame on You for Caving to the Right."
Litt, owner of Litt Electrics in Detroit and a longtime union member and supporter, said the legislation attempts to undo all "the wonderful, positive things unions have done for people."
He belonged to a union for many years, he said. When he opened his own business, he hired union workers. He and others talked about their disappointment that Michigan lawmakers are pushing to approve the legislation during a lame duck session.
"I hope lawmakers will recognize the need to have a process that involves the people," Litt said before the votes. "When 2014 rolls around, this kind of action will be met with a real response."
For nearly two years, Snyder had said the right-to-work issue was too divisive and not on his agenda. But unions lost a ballot initiative Nov. 6 to try to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution. And after being pressured by his own party and several business interests, the governor endorsed the controversial bills.
"I am a kindergarten teacher," said Renee Theisen of Warren, Mich., whose school district was one of at least two in the state that closed today because teachers were taking leave to protest the legislation. "We just want our voices heard. This is important to us to belong to a union, and we want to keep it that way."
On the front Capitol steps, tea party group Americans For Prosperity posted a sign advocating "workplace freedom" above the crowd. Conservative groups had reserved use of the front steps.
"I'll be frank with you; we're not going to be able to match the unions," said Annie Patnaude, deputy director for Americans for Prosperity Michigan. "A lot of them get paid days off when they come out and protest.
"What you see here is a small group of our really dedicated activists who wanted to come out to be here when we hear the news that the right-to-work legislative package has passed," she said. "We want to stand in solidarity with the courageous lawmakers."