At least 3,000 union members and protesters angered by Gov. Rick Snyder's proposals to tax pensions and give emergency financial managers sweeping new powers to void union contracts shouted their displeasure inside and outside the Capitol on Wednesday as anti-Snyder fervor grew.
The rally took on something of a festival atmosphere on the sunny, near-50-degree day, as people in a drum circle pounded out rhythms and union leaders on with bullhorns led the crowd in singing "We Shall Overcome." Inside the Capitol, scores of protesters chanted outside the House chamber as lawmakers held session, while hundreds more gathered in the rotunda and the balconies surrounding it.
"This is what democracy looks like," the crowds yelled, while people waved their hands in the air or held up union banners. "They say, 'Cut back,' we say, 'Fight back!'"
Democratic legislative leaders said Wednesday that they plan to introduce a proposal to add a clause to the state constitution that says every person has the right to join a labor organization and bargain collectively on wages and other employment conditions. But the measure would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, both currently controlled by Republicans who won't pass it, or a voter petition drive that could put it on the ballot — a long and expensive process.
The noisy protest came a day after more than 1,000 retirees and others rallied to oppose the governor's plan to tax retirement income. Snyder has tried not to provoke the kind of backlash that Gov. Scott Walker got in Wisconsin, but his critics accuse him of making similar moves to help businesses and attack workers.
Snyder campaigned last year on a promise to replace the complex and unpopular Michigan Business Tax with a 6 percent corporate income tax, a move that would eliminate $1.7 billion in revenue. But he didn't reveal until his Feb. 17 budget presentation that he wanted to pay for it by eliminating a tax break for the working poor and require more money from individual taxpayers, including $900 million more from retirees.
Opposition has been building since, even among some voters who backed Snyder in November. The share of likely Michigan voters polled by EPIC-MRA who gave the governor a negative job rating rose from 15 percent on Jan. 22-24 to 36 percent of those surveyed Feb. 26-March 1. Only 32 percent gave him a positive job rating in the latest poll. Both had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Wednesday's rally was one of the largest at the state Capitol this year aimed at stopping Republican proposals that unions say attack their bargaining rights, such as eliminating binding arbitration and prevailing wage laws and giving emergency financial managers the authority to toss out union contracts.
Snyder was the clear target of their protesters' anger, with signs reading, "Privatize Snyder," "Gov. Snyder: Robin Hood in Reverse" and "Curb the Nerd," a reference to the governor's "one tough nerd" campaign slogan.
"We're going backward instead of forward with him in office," said Mattie Solomon, a retired United Auto Workers member and former Ford Motor Co. worker who lives in Detroit and was attending the rally.
Solomon said she was most upset about Snyder's plan to tax pensions and deeply cut state aid to public schools. Scores of protesters wore buttons declaring, "Hands off my pension!"
Snyder showed no signs of backing away from any of proposals.
"It's part of the democratic process," he said when asked about the protests. "We're asking shared sacrifice from a lot of people and these are difficult times. I just hope people will always be respectful and then step back and look at the big picture. We've had a broken Michigan for a long time, and our package is really the focal point for the reinvention of Michigan."
Snyder has repeatedly said Michigan is not like Wisconsin, where massive rallies at the Capitol in Madison opposed legislation stripping most collective bargaining rights for public workers.
But those at Wednesday's rally saw themselves in the same kind of fight.
"From Egypt to Madison, all the way Michigan," one group chanted. Others repeated a theme heard in Wisconsin: "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out."
Snyder has said he plans to collectively bargain over changes he wants with public employee unions, including an estimated $180 million in concessions tied to the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. But he also is expected to sign the bills giving emergency financial managers much more control.
Other GOP-backed proposals in the state Legislature that have angered unions include measures that would allow "right to work" zones and eliminate prevailing wage laws for publicly financed construction projects.
Republicans in November swept the state's top offices and now hold majorities in the state House and Senate. Democratic lawmakers have been unable to halt any of Snyder's measures or bills chipping away at union rights, one reason the rallies are growing increasingly frequent.