By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
EAST LANSING, MICH. — On the Michigan State University campus here Saturday, they hooted and hollered, but these faithful union activists could never grab the attention of the object of their ire.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Planted firmly outside the MSU Breslin Center, these loyal union backers cast their furious scorn at the governor.
“Hey hey, ho ho, right-to-work has got to go,” they chanted.
A single drummer girl delivered the cadence, serving as the backbone for the outrage.
Occasionally, they’d change their cries, though never veering from typical labor rally refrains.
“Shown me what democracy looks like,” a leader sporting his deep purple SEIU cap would chant, only to hear the pre-planned reply.
“This is what democracy looks like.”
And for Michigan labor unions, that statement has never rung truer.
On Tuesday, Snyder signed a quickly passed right-to-work law, making Michigan the second state to go down that road this year. Indiana approved similar legislation in April.
Right-to-work laws mean that unions cannot force employees to pay dues. If an employee wants to join the union of a particular shop, he’s entirely free to do so. Unions say right-to-work leads to lower pay, while Republicans contend businesses avoid non-right-to-work states when deciding where to expand.
Right-to-work was never supposed to happen here, the cradle of the union movement, the home state of the United Auto Workers union. This is the state where 17 percent of all workers count themselves with organized labor, the highest rate in the nation.
That it happened here represents a stunning turn of events for Michiganders and the labor movement generally.
The new laws sting even more because just more than a month ago, unions were hoping to enshrine collective-bargaining rights and other special labor-only perks in the state’s constitution through popular referendum. That, union leaders reasoned, would send a message that unions are here to stay, at least in Michigan.
The constitutional amendment also would have kept state lawmakers’ hands forever off of union extras.
It wasn’t to be, though.
The referendum tanked miserably, failing by 16 points. Further amplifying the carnage was President Barack Obama’s relatively easy victory here. Unions spent untold millions defending the president from Michigan native son Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential contender.
After Snyder penned his name on the two laws — one for public-sector unions and another for private-sector unions — organizers promised a fiery response at the MSU winter commencement, where the governor would deliver the commencement address to the happy grads.
It was all they could do. The GOP easily exposed the unions’ powerlessness in the right-to-work rumble, flexing the GOP’s legislative muscle without any blockades from Democrats or organized labor. Republicans also attached simple appropriations to the two laws so they were protected from repeal through referendum.
Holding no strategic maneuvers, unions called for the only action they could offer — hooting and hollering on a frigid Saturday morning.
Before the address, union supporters lined street corners and sidewalks around the Breslin, hoping to elicit a honk, a wave or even a wink and a nod.
Anything to prove that the public still holds a place in its heart for organized labor.
A few of the parents and grads acquiesced, fist-bumping activists or offering kind words in passing.
After the pre-commencement foot traffic died down, the union folks regrouped in a nearby hotel. Some fled, unable to bear more time in the winter air. Others held strong, knowing that Snyder would leave the arena shortly after his address.
When he left, they would finally show their true rage and then governor couldn’t ignore them. They would be heard.
Unfortunately, they miscalculated again.
Shortly before the ceremony concluded, SEIU protesters amassed on a sidewalk just yards from where Snyder would exit the arena into a waiting Chevy Tahoe. The chanting started and marchers clutched their signs as if believing their posters were all they had left.
Around noon, grads and parents filed out of the arena and headed for new beginnings. The unions kept hollering, dancing and drumming.
Their songs reached the high heavens, but not much else. Snyder quietly slipped into the waiting SUV and scurried away before most of the protesters noticed.
“There he goes,” yelled out one female protester in the crowd as the raven black SUV turned the corner down the block.
Still, marchers continued. They had to. They wanted — no, needed — these grads to realize Snyder had tainted their bright futures.
Again, some commencement participants were friendly to the labor folks.
Others were less amenable.
“Go Gov. Snyder,” a blonde, gown-clad grad yelled as she walked through the rally point. “We love him.”
Some union members still clung to hope. Nick, who offered only his first name, said that despite the constitutional amendment’s failures, he knows deep down that Michiganders still support the organized labor movement and its objectives. He said the amendment may have constituted an “overreach” and a tactical error on the union’s part.
Others stuck to talking points and class-warfare rhetoric. An elderly female marcher told Watchdog.org that even before the constitutional amendment, the corporate puppets in the Republican Party were planning an ambush in a lame-duck legislative session. She said the right-to-work attack was order by business leaders and carried out by GOP henchmen.
For one union member, a shorter fellow donning a navy blue beanie and sunglasses, reality had sunk in.
“We ain’t doing anything out here,” he complained to a fellow rally-goer as he made his way over to greet more grads.
Contact Dustin Hurst at [email protected] or @DustinHurst via Twitter.
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