In Michigan’s Attack on Democracy, Where’s the Wisconsin Spirit?
Between 5,000 and 8,000 Michiganders turned out in Lansing last week to emphatically protest the signing of a bill that would give emergency managers appointed by the governor power to oversee towns or school districts.
The measure would allow the governor to appoint either individuals or corporations to manage deficit-stricken school districts and municipalities. Appointees would have the power to unilaterally cancel union contracts, slash employees’ benefits, sell off public property, and fire elected school boards and city councils.
Energized by the outpouring of people power that started in Egypt and spread to the Wisconsin capital, many of us in Michigan felt that it was our turn. Unions failed to mobilize in numbers, though, until the day Republican Governor Rick Snyder was scheduled to sign the bill.
Amid shouts of disapproval, Snyder signed it with ease.
Protesters had rallied throughout the day. The resounding message was “That’s not fair,” unlike in Madison, where protesters demanded that legislators “Kill the bill.”
Crowds demonstrating outside represented both of Michigan teachers unions, laborers, state and municipal employees, auto workers, and Michigan State’s graduate employees.
In a state where the media has bashed the unions throughout its protracted economic decline, blaming auto workers for the downfall of the auto industry and teachers for the failures of public school systems, the feeling of renewed resistance was refreshing.
Speakers such as Wendell Anthony of the NAACP, Detroit city councilwoman Joann Watson, and a small business owner from Traverse City reminded us of the impact that organized labor has had on this state and this country.
Lansing’s Mayor Virg Bernero, Snyder’s opponent in last year’s gubernatorial election, repeatedly guaranteed protestors that the Capitol was their house. “I want to assure you, you can stay as long as you like,” he said. “The police won’t bother you.”
Throughout the day, protesters flooded the Capitol in between the rallies outside. Demonstrations inside took on a more militant spirit, with protesters making up their own chants and circulating them through the crowd.
A mass formed outside the door of the House chamber, where the energy level rose as protesters had a sense that their message—“Do your job!”—would be heard.
These bouts of unbridled enthusiasm were quelled periodically as participants were drawn back outside for the pre-formatted speakers and rallies. Many in the crowd hoped for an escalation of events that would mirror Madison, but without a union willing to call for a bold action like the Madison teachers’ sick-out or the Capitol occupation spurred by the university teaching assistants union, it became increasingly obvious that Wisconsin’s history would not be repeated in Lansing.
The Capitol was scheduled to close at 5:30 p.m. and building security had every intention of clearing any remaining protestors out at that time. A small contingent of young activists gathered in the rotunda, but the majority of union members remained outside for more speeches.
The Lansing police did not show up, but the state police did. As closing time approached, they encircled the rotunda and arrested 11 protesters who refused to leave quickly and willingly. Two more were arrested later as a swarm of protesters encircled the police van taking them to Ingham County jail.
At the end of the day, with the Capitol emptied and the bill signed, it was clear that last week’s rallies will serve to mark the beginning of resistance to this anti-democratic bill rather than an all-out attempt to halt it.
Although Snyder says appointment of emergency managers should be a rarity, already 65 are trained, with plans to have 100 more trained immediately.
The cities of Benton Harbor, Pontiac, and Ecorse are already under such managers, as are the Detroit public schools. Each city is majority African American.
Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb has inspired more criticism than support during his reign in the district. Despite additional budget cuts every year, the list of schools in danger of closing, restructuring, or being converted into a charter never seems to get shorter.
Bobb has managed to create a culture of fear and frustration in which teachers are led to believe they are disposable. Schools are under extreme pressure to save themselves by raising their scores on standardized tests, while higher class sizes limit the opportunities for creative teaching.
Hope once remained in the fact that teachers were protected under their union contracts, and the school board was not afraid to speak out against Bobb’s sweeping changes. The new bill allows Bobb to bypass both those obstacles, leaving teachers even more vulnerable.
With statewide resistance apparently fizzling, any future resistance is likely to crop up against individual emergency manager situations.
None of the major public sector unions in the state have publicized actions during either the AFL-CIO’s national day of action for workers’ rights on April 4 or AFSCME’s actions April 13.
In choosing to fight many long and slow battles instead of one big one, the unions missed an opportunity to use the Wisconsin spirit to catapult the resistance onto center stage.
This may be why Snyder pursued this particular bill first. Forty other anti-worker bills have been proposed by legislators, including taxation of pensions. Legislators in Michigan can achieve much of what was attempted in Wisconsin—tearing up union contracts and butchering social programs—on a piecemeal basis, using the emergency manager legislation as a centerpiece.
Whereas Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair” bill and similar measures in Ohio and Indiana came up against all public workers, retirees, and beneficiaries of social programs simultaneously, Snyder’s legislative agenda attacks sections of the working class one at a time, making it harder to build resistance to any one measure.
However, the first rumblings of open dissent have come from Iris Salter, president of the Michigan Education Association. Salter polled 1,100 MEA locals in a letter, asking whether enough support existed for strikes and other job actions.
As in Madison, action from the teachers and students could galvanize other unions. As Michigan begins to feel the effects of the legislation, resistance will have to come from the cities, school districts, and unions affected directly by the presence of emergency financial managers.
Nina Chacker is a Detroit Public School teacher and Evan Rohar is an educational paraprofessional in Hamtramck Public Schools.