It’s clear that the passage of “Right to Work” (for less) legislation in Michigan, a union strong-hold, seventy-five years after the wave of “sit-down” strikes that began in Flint, was an enormous defeat for the labor movement. As Eric Ruder reported at SocialistWorker.org:
Union pride runs deep in Michigan, and the defeat came as a shock to generations of Michigan’s workers. “Right-to-work” legislation makes it possible for anti-union workers to enjoy the benefits of working in a union-organized workplace without having to pay their fair share of union dues–an idea that union households find particularly odious.
“Our parents, our grandparents and our great grandparents fought and literally died so that we could have better wages, better livelihoods, better benefits and more worker safety,” said Ted Copley, a Detroit firefighter. Susan Abraham of Delta Township, who took part in the protest wearing a Mrs. Claus outfit, said: “Our family wouldn’t be where it is today without the UAW.”
The impact this defeat will have on the momentum of the labor movement, which had picked up some steam in Madison in early 2011 and was hurtled forward by the Chicago Teachers Strike in September, should not be underestimated. But by the same token, my experience on the ground in Lansing yesterday also showed the tremendous potential of the time we are living in, and it highlighted the need for organizers to begin coordinated work to learn and generalize the lessons of Madison, Chicago, and Michigan: the need to break from the electoral strategy, the importance of rank-and-file activation and leadership, and need to maintain the workplace as a center of struggle.
The analysis of why we failed to stop the anti-union attack in Michigan, and why we have yet to completely repel an anti-union attack in any of the union-stronghold states, needs to take place side-by-side with an analysis of growing militancy among workers. Understanding why the attacks have worked is critical, and so is working out a way to turn the tides of the anti-union, anti-worker, austerity onslaught.
Right to Work? Shut it down! Police state? Shut it down! The whole damn system? Shut it down!
I arrived at the Michigan State Capitol around 8:30 AM. In the sub-freezing weather, a crowd of a few thousand had started to form on the Capitol steps. People were already inside the Capitol itself, and the police tightly controlled who went in an out. From the balcony, cops in riot gear and armed with tear gas and bean bag guns watched the crowd. If every member of the state police wasn’t within a two block radius of the capitol building, it was pretty close to all of them.
Some of the workers climbed the steps of the Capitol, where they would remain for the rest of the day. Hard hats climbed the statuary and railings to lead chants. When cops decided this was somehow a security threat, they tried to pull the workers down. Other workers fearlessly pushed the cops’ hands away as they reached for the workers’ neon safety vests. One or two workers got down at the cops’ request, but climbed back up as soon as the cops had walked away.
The anger and readiness to fight that hummed across the steps and down to the lawn was an entirely different world to the union stage across the street, where pop-rock music blared between speakers who had already conceded defeat and sought to turn the workers’ attentions to the 2014 election cycle. At one point in the early morning, as I walked across the lawn, picking my way through the crowd to the steps as workers hoisted a giant inflatable rat representing Snyder to the top of the capitol steps, a marshal approached me and said, “You are actually going to want to go back over there.” He pointed away from the capitol to the union stage. “That’s where the program’s going to start soon.” As a collective anger rose across the lawn, the marshals tried to divert it, rather than ride the tide of the rank-and-file’s collective power.
On the capitol steps, the mood was anything from defeated. Although many people I talked to weren’t sure the best course of action to take, they were determined to take action, and to take it right then. As one sign said, “I will fight on until you take my union card from my cold, dead hand.”
Fuck the police–and the horses you can’t ride in on.
The Americans for Prosperity, who seemingly had advance knowledge of the attempt to ram the legislation through and had “reserved” the capitol lawn, had the audacity to set up a massive tent and then disparage the massing thousands of workers face to face. By 11 AM, the tensions had reached the boiling point. As the right-wingers continued to smear the long, proud history of the Michigan labor movement, workers began to shake the tent. When workers on the capitol steps realized what was happening, they began to chant, “Tear it down! Tear it down!” Within five minutes, the tent fell, and a cheer went up from the workers. The police moved in, with a column of eight horses leading a brigade of police. They tried to establish a perimeter, but the workers, unafraid of the spooking and balking horses, swarmed around them. Twice, the horses and foot police were forced to retreat, as again the crowd cheered.
Workers appropriated the food and drinks that had been in the tent and began handing them out. The AFP goons continued to whine about how they had been ruffled during the commotion when the police had charged in. Of course, they had no concern for the workers who had been kicked by the spooking horses. They lamented, as only a right-winger could, about the “violent” workers tearing their “Don’t Tread on Me” flag in half.
The workers in the tent area understood they had scored a victory. It emboldened them for the next battle, which took place in the outdoor lobby of the Romney building and Capitol Street that afternoon.
We heard there was a civil disobedience action going on in the Romney Building, where the Governor’s offices are housed. Brit Schulte described how the initial sit-in began:
We were part of a supportive action for the dozen or so union workers, sitting in and blocking the entrances to the building where Gov. Snyder has an office. Police began filing in around the perimeters and then created a split through the center of our crowd. A member of the IBEW shouted out, “They got a hard hat! They’re beating a hard hat!” And those of us tall enough to see could see the police wrestling a worker in a hard hat to the ground. Another voice shouted out, “Everyone sit down!” The majority of the crowd began sitting in and chanted, “Sit!” and “Shame!” at the police..The police immediately escalated the situation, coming with more force into the crowd, stepping on people and pushing people over. It was clear, though, that they didn’t have specific orders and also didn’t know how to handle to crowd, because they just stood there in the midst of the crowd for a long while, immobile and without a working plan for dispersal.
Eventually, they started pulling us out of the building one by one. Although ultimately it wasn’t the case, they gave the impression we were being placed under arrest when they dragged us out. Still, almost no one moved until forced.
I was one of the last remaining people in the lobby. I was holding a blind woman’s hand and trying to tell her what was happening. The police assumed she would leave on request because she was blind. The police forced a clear path for us, and then they yelled at us to go. I asked her, “do you want to leave?” and she replied “No. No, I’m not going anywhere.” I turned back to the cop and said, “We’re staying right here.” The crowd cheered. The cops wrenched our arms and dragged us out.
Once we were outside and had been amassed on the sidewalk, the column of horses came back. The workers stood their ground. Twice the horses were forced to retreat. Each time, the workers chased them as they walked away, hurling vicious insults at the cops. Riot police from the state building were brought out. They formed a line further up the street and began marching toward us, brandishing their batons and chanting thuggishly. This time, the workers advanced to meet the line.
We linked arms and chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” They pulled one person from the line and arrested him. In the end, they only succeeded in pushing us back a few feet, hitting us in the chest, neck, and face with their batons, before the mass of thousands of workers flooding the street to defend the line could sufficiently buttress those of us in the front. Other workers and press swarmed behind them, and soon the cops were surrounded. A tense stand off ensued.
We continued chanting and as we sang solidarity forever, the cops began to retreat. Workers were hesitant to celebrate at first, unsure if it was really a retreat or if they were preparing another way to attack us. Soon it became clear that we had won the standoff though, and everyone began hugging each other.
I will fight on until you take my union card from my cold, dead hand.
The workers of Michigan came to the state capitol ready to fight, to do whatever it took to win. Ultimately, however, the militancy of the workers alone was not enough to stop the passage of the bill. Some commentators have used this to bolster their ludicrous claims that unions are outdated and unnecessary. In fact, the events in Lansing yesterday show exactly how desperately we still need unions. The question is: what type of union do we need?
Especially for those of us who were in Chicago for the CTU strike, the importance of rank-and-file leadership–both in terms of having a widely activated rank-and-file membership and having officers who have been elected as the result of rank and file struggle–become clearer by the day. If we are to have any hope of reversing these attacks, we certainly can’t rely on the government (we already knew that), but we also have begin the process of transforming our unions so they have the power and political will to act, to embody the readiness to fight that was so apparent yesterday. To borrow a phrase, we need to rebuild our unions, as rank-and-file members, from the bottom up. In that sense, the Chicago Teachers are not just the workers who educate our children, they were teaching us a lesson in class struggle unionism.
Under what could have been utterly demoralizing circumstances, the workers of Michigan fought back. Why? Because even if you are spared being beaten with a baton, they will beat you in another way–lowering wages and living standards, or whatever it happens to be that day. But if you stand up and are willing to fight them, you’ll lose sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, but there’s a chance you can win. And the more we fight, the more we learn about what works and what doesn’t. For once it’s not just about what they’re doing to you, how they’re keeping you down, exploiting and oppressing you. For once it’s about you, and the actions that as workers you take together. Even on such a bitter day of defeat, it was hard to feel totally demoralized, because the fighting potential of the working class, that went untapped yesterday, was clear.