Update, 12:22 p.m.: The Michigan House has passed the “right-to-work” bill. Gov. Rick Snyder has said he will sign it.
LANSING, Mich. — Protesters speaking out against right-to-work laws blanketed the grounds around the Michigan state Capitol Tuesday morning, as the state’s legislature prepared to give final approval to laws which could seriously wound local organized labor.
The state’s right-to-work legislation is expected to pass Tuesday, and the mood of many in the crowd was anxious but hopeful.
“It could go either way… They’re just trying to rush this through so fast, I don’t think they were expecting people to know what was going on so quickly.” said Robert Nolte, a Detroit Teamsters member for 35 years. “So hopefully we can get them to talk about it some more, get our side heard.”
The protests began at 8 a.m. in 20-degree weather, when hundreds of union manufacturing workers first arrived. The crowd in the early hours of the day was predominantly middle-aged, white, and male—Michigan is an historic manufacturing stronghold, and women, young people, and people of color are more often concentrated in non-manufacturing unions such as those that represent the service sector.
By 9:15 a.m., however, thousands of people had formed a crowd stretching out several blocks beyond the Capitol, and significant service sector and public employee union presences were visible.
“We have two buses coming from our district,” said Kathy Purkiss, a middle school teacher and American Federation of Teachers member. She predicted that the laws would pass, which she said was “very, very sad.”
Not all the ralliers present were union members. A large banner reading, “WORKPLACE FREEDOM”, hung on the front steps of the Capitol behind where the union members were standing. The banner was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the group with ties to the Koch brothers that supports the legislation. At the very foot of the steps, a few union members engaged in an acrimonious exchange with three lone counter-protesters from Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty organization.
Some of the protesters, while supportive of union members’ efforts to defeat right-to-work, were primarily there to oppose another set of right-wing laws currently under consideration: legislation which would limit abortion coverage in Michigan’s Affordable Care Act-mandated exchanges.
“Obviously I want to support union brothers and sisters,” said Jeff Liebmann, a Unitarian minister from Midland, Michigan, “but it’s democracy in total. There are so many issues being trampled today. I’m mostly here for reproductive justice and gun legislation that’s going through, that’s insane. But obviously right-to-work is a major issue for Michigan.”
Liebmann, who wore a pink Planned Parenthood t-shirt over his minister’s collar, called the pending anti-abortion laws “criminally unjust” and said he feared it would result in the unnecessary deaths of women forced to bring risky pregnancies to term.
“This legislature is an out of control freight train that thinks it can just do whatever it wants to do,” he said. “It can close its doors and work behind closed doors, and screw the public. And we can’t stand for that. Whether you’re in the clergy, or you’re a layperson, we’ve all got to stand up against this.”