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Thousands Protest Michigan’s Anti-Union Law, But Deep Pockets of Right-Wing Backers Prevail

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Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder has signed into law two highly controversial anti-union bills, officially making the historic union stronghold the 24th so-called “right-to-work” state in the country. On Tuesday, thousands of demonstrators flooded the state Capitol in Lansing to denounce the bill as an organized attack against labor that will lower wages and diminish collective bargaining rights. We’re joined by two people who attended the demonstrations: Katie Oppenheim, a registered nurse and president of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, and Andy Potter, state vice president of the Michigan Corrections Organization and the chair of SEIU’s National Republican Member Advisory Committee. We also speak with Lee Fang, a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, about how the bills were pushed through by powerful corporate interests and secretive billionaires. Michigan lawmakers are also using the lame-duck session to significantly restrict women’s reproductive rights with three bills that would ban abortion coverage in many insurance plans, and another bill that would allow employers and medical professionals to refuse to cover or provide health treatment on moral grounds. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Michigan, where Republican Governor Rick Snyder has signed into law two highly controversial anti-union bills, officially making the historic union stronghold the 24th so-called “right-to-work” state in the country. The move was met by massive demonstrations. More than 12,000 protesters flooded the Capitol in Lansing, saying the bill is an organized attack against labor that will result in lower wages and diminished collective bargaining rights. State police with riot gear released pepper spray on the crowd and arrested at least three people. Meanwhile, Governor Snyder defended his decision to sign the legislation.

GOV. RICK SNYDER: Today was a big day in Michigan’s history. I signed the legislation regarding “right to work” or “freedom to choose.” And I think it’s very important. It’s about giving workers choice and a freedom to choose. It’s being pro-worker, not anti-union. And it’s going to bring a lot of jobs to Michigan, because if you look at Indiana, they’ve been very successful bringing thousands of jobs, even since this last February, and that will happen right here in Michigan. But we need to keep moving forward.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, speaking Tuesday. His comments directly contradict a statement he made at a hearing earlier this year.

GOV. RICK SNYDER: Right to work is an issue that’s a very divisive issue. People feel very strongly about it. So, right to work is an issue that may have its time and place, but I don’t believe it’s appropriate in Michigan during 2012.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Despite Snyder’s initial reluctance to back right-to-work legislation, Michigan state Republicans advanced the anti-union bills before Democrats gain five House seats in the new legislative session that begins next month. Gloria Keyes, a member of the United Auto Workers, told the Associated Press why she decided to attend Tuesday’s protest.

GLORIA KEYES: You will have people that will be working right alongside of you that will not have to pay union dues, if you pay union dues, but will still be able to get all the benefits from being a union member.

AMY GOODMAN: Michigan lawmakers are using the lame-duck session not only to steamroll anti-union legislation, but also to significantly restrict women’s reproductive rights. Last Thursday, the state Senate passed three bills that would ban abortion coverage in many insurance plans, and another that would allow employers and medical professionals to refuse to cover or provide health treatment on moral grounds.

Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, told reporters workers are standing united for both labor rights and women’s rights. He said, quote, “We’re worried about all workers in the state of Michigan. We’re worried about the bills that they’re trying to pass that impact women’s reproductive rights. This is a very right-wing agenda,” he said. “We’ll stand up and fight for the rights of workers and women and minorities, the rights of everybody in our society,” he said.

For more, we’re joined now by three guests. In Michigan, we go to PBS studio WKAR in the state capital of Lansing, where we’re joined by Katie Oppenheim, registered nurse, president of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, local chapter of the Michigan Nurses Association; Andy Potter is with us, corrections officer, state vice president of the Michigan Corrections Organization and the chair of SEIU’s National Republican Member Advisory Committee. And in San Francisco, California, we’re joined by journalist Lee Fang, reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, covers money in politics, conservative movements and lobbying. He recently wrote a piece called “Pro-'Right to Work' Groups in Michigan Outspend Union Counterparts.”

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Katie Oppenheim, you were inside the Capitol. Talk about the mass protest yesterday. What happened inside and outside?

KATIE OPPENHEIM: Thank you for having us on today.

Inside the Capitol, we were there starting about 7:30 in the morning, and it was quite a great show of solidarity. There were people—the nurses there, people from all different unions, non-union members, people from the community of faith. And we were there to let the governor know, in particular, that even if he signs this bill, we’re not going away. That’s our building. There were 2,500 of us in there speaking up for what we know is right—in the case of nurses, making sure that we can speak up for our patients.

Outside—I was inside most of the day. Outside, though—we were being sent photographs—there were probably another 10,000 people from all different areas that I just spoke of, some of them trying to get in. I will say they did let people in more easily yesterday than they did last week, when they closed the Capitol down. So it was a—it was a powerful, albeit sad, day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andy Potter, you were at the demonstrations, as well. Can you comment on your response, first of all, to this right-to-work legislation and give us a sense of the scene outside?

ANDY POTTER: Well, I think, outside, there was thousands of people trying to voice their opinion on this matter. And I think when you have over 13,000 people that come out with hardly any given notice at all, and they show opposition to a law that nobody asked for and no one was pleading for, I think that makes a great statement in Michigan. And I don’t believe this will be easily forgotten. I believe most Michigan people are going to continue this conversation for the next couple years, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Potter, this is seen as a Democrat-versus-Republican battle, but you are the chair of SEIU’s National Republican Member Advisory Committee. Why do you think the Republican governor, Snyder, moved forward with this now, something he was not pushing, especially all through the period of Wisconsin and what happened with Scott Walker?

ANDY POTTER: Well, you know, it’s amazing how quickly he turned around. And for a long time, he was continuously saying it was a divisive issue and it wasn’t right for Michigan. They did a lot of polling that showed that was accurate, that most Michigan people did not want this in their state. So, for—to have him just turn around completely and fully support this, along with most of the Republican Party, is amazing, and it’s disappointing. And most Michigan people should be outraged in the manner in which they handled it. And I think it has everything to do with money and a little to do with the Michigan people and freedom, as which they like to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Potter and Katie Oppenheim, we’re going to break, come back to this discussion, and we’ll also talk about the money behind this move and the passage of these bills. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re in Lansing, Michigan—at least our guests are—in the capital of Michigan, talking about the legislation that was signed off on yesterday by the Michigan governor, Rick Snyder. Our guests, Andy Potter, corrections officer, state vice president of Michigan Corrections—the Michigan Corrections Association and head of the Republican Advisory Board for SEIU—and we’re also joined by Lee Fang, who’s an investigative reporter who writes for—who has been writing pieces for The Nation covering money in politics, conservative movements and lobbying.

Lee, you wrote the piece, “Pro-'Right to Work' Groups in Michigan Outspend Union Counterparts.” Lay out who’s behind these bills at this time.

LEE FANG: Well, Amy, thanks for having me.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and many business groups have been pressuring the governor for the past few weeks to pass right to work. But my piece looks at the broader kind of unorthodox lobbying infrastructure that conservatives have used to pass anti-labor legislation throughout the country. In Michigan, there are two large groups that have played a deciding factor here. The Mackinac Center—it’s a local think tank in Michigan that kind of mirrors the conservative think tanks in D.C. like AEI or the Heritage Foundation, but the Mackinac Center is only focused on Michigan politics—they’ve provided a lot of the intellectual cover for Snyder to make this move. And Americans for Prosperity-Michigan is the chapter of the grassroots group founded and financed largely by the Koch brothers. They’ve been—they’ve been providing the grassroots support for this bill. They’ve been organizing their members to hold rallies, make phone calls in support of passing right to work.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lee Fang, how do these groups that you’ve just mentioned, the Americans for Prosperity in Michigan and the Mackinac Center—how do they compare with Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin and Ohio’s Buckeye Institute?

LEE FANG: The Mackinac Center is part of a 50-state network of conservative think tanks. Many of them all push the same policies—or, pardon me, they push very similar policies, and they work closely with these grassroots groups like Americans for Prosperity. In Wisconsin, the MacIver Institute, a sister organization to the Mackinac Center, was there to put out studies and pressure Governor Walker to go after public employee unions. Similarly, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin was there to hold rallies and sponsor advertisements to encourage him to push that bill. The same type of strategy was employed in Ohio, where another sister think tank, this one called the Buckeye Institute, played a similar role, putting out studies, calling for Governor Kasich to go after the unions in that state. Again, the business lobby from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce also played an important role here. But these ideological groups, that are very media savvy, they’re trained for the 24-hour news cycle. Many of them have their own local media outlets. For example, the Mackinac Center in Michigan has two of its own media outlets. They’re very good at sustaining pressure and providing the political encouragement for these governors to take these anti-labor moves.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to play for you an excerpt of a speech given last year by the executive director for Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, Scott Hagerstrom. He was speaking at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual conference, revealing his group’s real goal is to, quote, “take the unions out at the knees.”

SCOTT HAGERSTROM: Like any organization, unions want to grow and get larger. So, to get larger, their area of growth is government. And in order to get even larger, they have to grow government. They have to raise taxes. They have to increase regulation. More employees, more employees. So we fight these battles on taxes and regulations, but really what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Lee Fang?

LEE FANG: Well, Americans for Prosperity was founded in the mid-'80s by David and Charles Koch as kind of the grassroots organization to advance conservative policies. But over the years, there's evidence to suggest that the group has largely functioned as an appendage of Koch Industries and their political agenda. In the early '90s, they were organizing citizens to oppose regulations on acid rain. In recent years, they've been organizing citizens to oppose efforts to address global warming. And both of those policies were deeply opposed by the company Koch Industries. Americans for Prosperity, over the past two years, has taken a leading role in going after labor unions. David Koch has gone on record saying that, you know, he supported what happened in Wisconsin, and he’s going to be using his political advocacy organizations to do similar efforts across the country. So it’s not surprising that Americans for Prosperity is taking a leading role here in Michigan. And unlike other advocacy groups that might focus on supporting—or trying to solve various problems in society, Americans for Prosperity is more about increasing the raw political power of Koch Industries.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lee Fang, you write about the billionaire DeVos’s family’s efforts to control public policy debates through state-level nonprofits. They’re major backers of right-to-work legislation in Michigan and elsewhere. As far back as 2002, Dick DeVos discussed how the conservative movement should fund more grassroots advocacy groups to pursue policy goals.

DICK DEVOS: Where is the battle going to be fought for the future? In my view, it will be, and at this point it needs to be, fought at the state level, utilizing vehicles such as GLEP and others nationally, but ideally these organizations must be constructed locally. They need to be constructed with individuals such as the staff we had in Michigan, who were intelligent as—and connected with local grassroots politics of what was going on, that had the relationships, the insights and the political sensitivity to know what was happening.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lee Fang, that was Dick DeVos. Can you talk about his significance both in Michigan and nationally?

LEE FANG: Well, DeVos comes from a very prominent family in Michigan. His father founded the Amway corporation, and the DeVos family has played a critical role in financing the modern right. They helped provide the funds for some groups, again, like the Heritage Foundation and some of these large conservative think tanks. They’re very prominent in Michigan politics, as well. DeVos ran for governor in 2006 as a Republican. His wife was a leader of the Republican Party. And for some time now, they’ve been pressuring—

AMY GOODMAN: And his wife Betsy is the sister—

LEE FANG: —Republican leaders in Michigan to enact right to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Fang, isn’t it true his wife, Betsy DeVos, prominent Republican in Michigan, is the sister of Erik Prince, who is the founder of Blackwater?

LEE FANG: Oh, pardon me. The DeVos family has gone on record that they’ve been pressuring Republican politicians to support right to work. They financed and supported Americans for Prosperity in Michigan and the Mackinac Center, the two groups I mentioned earlier. And a group founded just last month, the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is connected to the DeVos family, it was registered by the former campaign manager for DeVos’s gubernatorial run. They spent over a million dollars in ads encouraging the public to support Snyder’s law, this right-to-work legislation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go back to Katie Oppenheim. Katie Oppenheim, you’re a nurse as well as a union member. Can you talk about how this right-to-work legislation will affect you personally?

KATIE OPPENHEIM: Well, for us as nurses, this is about our patients. This is about us having the things that we need to best take care of our patients. And through collective bargaining, we’ve been able to negotiate things like safe patient-nurse ratios, safety equipment for our patients, and adequate rest for nurses between shifts so that they’re not doing things like working 20 hours, sleeping for four, and coming back and being expected to take care of patients, which isn’t safe for nurses or for patients. So this legislation is really just another example of the corporatization of healthcare in this country, where profits are more important than the patient care. And nurses are the front line, most important people in terms of being able to protect our patients and care for them.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of anti-choice legislation that is before the Legislature and also been passed, how it’d affect your patients, what that legislation is?

KATIE OPPENHEIM: Well, I’ve been a women’s health nurse for over 35 years. And this legislation, which is pending currently here in Lansing, would be devastating to women’s reproductive rights. It would allow providers to refuse to provide care for any reason that they choose. That includes not only abortion care but prescription birth control and other things, as well as unnecessary requirements for technological equipment in order to be able to provide abortions, which in essence would eliminate abortion care in the majority of the state of Michigan.

And the other thing would be private insurance companies. All private insurance companies could refuse to provide abortion coverage in their policies, making it a requirement for women to purchase a rider in case they would ever need an abortion. So these are just all more slams against women, in particular, poor women and women of minorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Andy Cooper, is the Republican Party divided? Can you talk about the climate right now in Michigan? You, as head of the Republican Advisory Group within the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, Andy Potter, if you can talk about what’s happening within—you’re a corrections officer. You’re the state vice president of the Michigan Corrections Organization. Legislation is being considered now that would lead to the privatization of prisons. How are things breaking down in terms of Republicans and Democrats within your own corrections officer union?

ANDY POTTER: Well, corrections officers are primarily Republican, for the most part, and I can tell you there’s a huge growing dissent, because I believe they see through most of this and see it for what it is. It’s an attack on them as a working class, middle class. And it’s just one more attempt to reduce labor and to, as you heard earlier, take the resources out so there’s no leverage. And when you work in a prison, you need as much protection as you can possibly get, as you can imagine. And so, there’s a growing number that are—that are extremely dissatisfied and upset.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there but certainly continue to follow this issue. I want to thank all of you for joining us. Andy Potter, corrections officer, head of the SEIU Republican advisory group, thanks so much for being there. Katie Oppenheim, thanks for joining us, registered nurse, president of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council. And thank you so much to Lee Fang in California, in San Francisco, reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, covering money in politics. We’ll link to your piece. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Sharif Abdel Kouddous in the streets of Cairo. Stay with us.

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