December 12, 2012 at 1:55 am

Laura Berman

Berman: Laws signal end of an era in Michigan

Gone are the days when state's unions were a formidable force that set a national agenda

The heart of organized labor beat strong in Michigan. Union leaders like Walter Reuther, Mildred Jeffrey, Douglas Fraser, even Jimmy Hoffa were towering figures whose legacy once seemed secure.

But on Tuesday, the state Legislature delivered a swift, cunning kick that cripples unions in Michigan and reverberates around the world. From the crowd — big, spirited, determined but not overwhelming in force — to the Democratic legislators delivering speeches on the House floor, it was a day of infamy.

The crowd chanted "this is what democracy looks like," and "this" was, in its way, a textbook chapter on the subject. There were schoolteachers and boilermakers, autoworkers and electricians marching together and chanting, drums beating — all while legislators, many on their way out, speedily passed into law two bills that appeared on the floor only last week, without benefit of committee review or discussion.

"Shame on you," came the shouts from the gallery in the aftermath of the first vote, 58-51 for passage.

Democracy, as even Abraham Lincoln knew, was a combination of grand ideas and baser ones, of political tricks and tactics, of the people huddled against the cold outside and those heavily guarded inside.

However you look at what happened in Michigan over the last week, these new right-to-work laws portend the end of the closed union shop and, with that, the end of an era when organized labor in Michigan was a formidable, muscular force that set a national agenda.

If the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies were humbling for labor and business alike, this was a last dollop of humiliation served up expressly for those wearing a union label.

As union supporters stamped their feet in the Capitol, helicopters flew overhead and police in riot gear moved en masse, their belts thick with gear — sticks, Tasers, service revolvers, ammo. Even the police horses were wearing clear plastic riot shields.

"I never would have thought I would see this happen in Michigan," said Eric Robinson, a Detroit construction worker, who remembers an older worker warning him about right-to-work legislation.

"That was, oh, 15 years ago," Robinson said, while waiting in line at the Capitol. He didn't believe it then but he never forgot the warning, either.

This was his third trip to Lansing this year, his third protest against union-weakening legislation, to little avail.

It was a moment watched closely across the country, including a stern New York Times editorial urging the governor to rethink his position.

Michigan will become "the kind of place that attracts chicken processors, not software engineers," wrote Edward McClelland, in the online magazine Salon. "Unable to adjust to the 21st century, Michigan is going back to the 19th."

"After 34 years of teaching, I see one thing after another being taken away," said Fred Jastrow, a Tecumseh science teacher who had driven to Lansing to demonstrate. "When are they going to stop?"

Whether you think the new laws are progress "for worker freedom," as its backers claim, or an expedient way to lower workers' wages and standard of living, the new bills hardly convey the empowering aura that once attended labor's rise.

The workers weren't celebrating their new "freedom" on Tuesday; they were stomping and hollering.And the legislation is likely to produce the opposite effect of Gov. Rick Snyder's stated aim — to settle the issue.

"This is not the Michigan my parents grew up in. It's not the Michigan I want history to record," said state Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, in an emotional speech on the House floor.

Whatever happens in the future, though, the passage of these bills — and the blow dealt to organized labor — is the Michigan history that will be recorded.

lberman@detnews.com.

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