LANSING - People came from as close as down the street and as far as Chicago and Wisconsin, joining thousands of union members in a protest against right-to-work legislation Tuesday in Lansing.
Despite the roar of the crowds lining the lawn of the Capitol building and surrounding streets, two pieces of legislation passed by the Senate last week made their way through the state House of Representatives and were signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder Tuesday afternoon.
10,000 on the Capitol lawn
Michigan State Police estimated that protesters at the Capitol numbered around 10,000 on Tuesday. Most were union members and supporters, while a small contingent of Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity members—both of which support right-to-work legislation—were present as well.
Teamsters, the American Federation of Teachers, the Michigan Education Foundation, UAW and a number of smaller unions—including pipeworkers, boilermakers and plumbers—were present.
"They say they want to bring Michigan together," said Nick Kottalis, a Dearborn resident and President of the Dearborn Truck Plant chapter of UAW Local 600. "This is just asking to divide the state of Michigan."
While UAW members arrived on large busses, many teachers came on their days off—or took a personal day—to join the protests, driving their own cars full of fellow educators donning red. Several said they feared for their jobs if their district knew they were at the protest.
"We're afraid to talk because we don't want to lose our jobs," said a teacher from Farmington.
Arrests, pepper spray, mounted police
The scene got out of hand a number of times as protesters clashed with right-to-work supporters, police, and legislators inside the Capitol.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Michigan State Police confirmed that three people were arrested and one was pepper sprayed—although several people claimed to have been sprayed. One of those people was former Congressman Mark Schauer.
“I immediately began to retreat and began to cover my eyes and my mouth,” Schauer told the Battle Creek Enquirer. “It was not good."
The biggest clash came around 11:30 a.m., when union members pushed down tents set up by Americans for Prosperity—while AFP members were inside. Mounted police were brought in to control the situation, as well as state police wielding batons.
After news of the house votes reached protesters, the rally moved to the Romney Building, where Gov. Snyder's office is. State officers formed a barrier around the building as protesters shouted to him, "Don't sign the bill!"
In a press conference Tuesday evening, Snyder announced that he signed the bills.
"I have signed these bills into law. ... We are moving forward on the topic of workplace fairness and equality," he said.
Rep. Mark Ouimet, R-Scio Township, applauded the legislation, stating Michigan workers will have the freedom to earn a living without being compelled to join a union.
Ouimet voted in favor of Senate Bill 116 and House Bill 4003, which allow paying union dues optional for workers, while still giving unions the ability to collectively bargain.
“All Michigan workers deserve the freedom to decide whether to join a union, and not be subjected to dues or fees if they decide against joining," Ouimet said. “These measures will encourage individual freedom and create an environment where job growth can thrive. The measures are pro-worker and pro-Michigan. Unions will still be able to make their case to workers, and now workers will have the right to choose."
House Democratic Leader Richard Hammel said the passage of the bills is a major blow to workers throughout Michigan.
"It's a sad day for the middle class and the state of democracy in Michigan when legislation that harms workers is successfully rushed through the process without any hearings or debate," Hammel said. "Despite repeated calls for hearings on this legislation, Republicans insisted on moving it through the Legislature as fast as they could. We are appalled by the continued assault on the standard of living of Michigan's working men and women."