Republican governors in Midwest are gaining a reputation as union battlers – but Michigan’s new Governor Rick Snyder did not set out to be one. Despite his own state’s budget crisis, he’s tried to keep the debate over public employee benefits and compensation from boiling over.
But that hasn’t stopped thousands of angry union members and other protesters from showing up at his doorstep, just as they’ve done in other states. Michigan Public Radio’s Rick Pluta brings us this report.
Snyder’s message has been one of, “We’re all in this together,” and he has insisted it will take sacrifices on everyone’s part to fix the state’s budget, revamp government, and revive the economy.
“People do embrace the idea of change – until it actually comes, and then the first reaction is a negative one,” he said this week. “And anyone who is involved will find the line item or the issue they don’t like the answer to.”
Just three months into his term, those unhappy with Snyder include seniors upset with his proposal to tax their pensions, teachers mad at education funding cuts, and public employees who do not like the new sweeping powers that have been given to emergency managers in some of the state’s worst-off communities. Their unions say his plans are a back door attack on them – one that they didn’t see coming.
Snyder says he can convince them to see his points. But, on many days, the governor can look out from his office across the street from the Michigan Capitol and see there are plenty of protesters who want him to change his mind.
“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” the protesters shouted this week.
Union members say they don’t buy Snyder’s concept of shared sacrifice, since businesses will get tax cuts while seniors on pensions will pay taxes on that income, and government workers are being asked to pay more for their benefits.
“He’s nickeling and diming us,” said Ray Holman, a state employee union lobbyist. “He’s not necessary calling for ending collective bargaining or making Michigan a right-too-work state, but, in essence, it’s having the same effect because he’s doing all these smaller things and it’s coming after us and taking away our rights just the same.”
He says Michigan’s new emergency manager law is a case in point. The law gives sweeping authority to state-appointed emergency managers who basically run local governments in financial trouble. That includes amending, or in the worst case scenario, throwing out union contracts all together.
David Gronenboom, an alternative education teacher, was shepherding a group of students through the state Capitol this week. Gronenboom says he’s voted for Republicans and Democrats, but he does not like what he sees coming out of Lansing. He says proposed budget cuts make it more likely that cities and school districts will run into budget troubles that will lead to insolvency.
“You remove money from cities, and then cities need help, and then puts the government in the position to make decisions directly about bargaining rights and contracts and wages and all those kinds of things. That’s how I see it going.”
But Snyder insists he is not going after collective bargaining rights – certainly not like his counterparts in Wisconsin and Ohio have. Wisconsin’s new public employee bargaining law requires unions to win re-certification votes every year, for example. Wisconsin and Ohio Republicans want to restrict what public employees can bargain for in contract talks.
“We’re going to do collective bargaining for the state for the concessions that we’re asking people to make,” Snyder said. “So I’ve been very pro-active in talking about collective bargaining being a part of our culture, our society, and doing it well in our state.”
Democratic leaders in the Legislature have asked Governor Snyder to prove it by endorsing their proposed amendment to the state constitution that would guarantee collective bargaining rights. Snyder’s refused. He says it’s not necessary and it puts the focus on labor strife instead of his top priorities of balancing the budget and creating jobs. But meanwhile, the protesters remain outside his door.