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ACLU, Coalition of Unions File New Lawsuit Against Michigan “Right-to-Work” Law

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A new lawsuit brought forward by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a coalition of labor unions claims that Michigan officials violated the Open Meetings Act when they locked the public out of the Capitol building while “Right-to-Work” was debated and then passed in December of 2012.  The coalition filed a motion on October 29th based on deposition testimony, emails, text messages and other new evidence.  Among the claims from the coalition is that Republican legislative staffers occupied the gallery of the House of Representatives in order to keep the public from viewing the session.  The public and some journalists were entirely locked out of the building for a total of four hours on December 6th, 2012 while the legislature took up “Right-to-Work.”

Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, said:

“Never in the history of Michigan has there been such a calculated effort to deny the public access to the democratic process.  The lockdown of the Capitol and the stacking of the gallery during the enactment of a controversial law make a mockery of the principles of open government and transparency.”

The Michigan Educators Association (MEA) is among the unions joining the lawsuit. Their president, Steve Cook, said:

“The state Capitol is the people’s house, and it should remain open to the public.  I and many others peacefully assembled. We were locked out of the Capitol that day and denied the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. Lawmakers can’t say they are all about the rule of law and then decide the rules don’t apply to them.”

The motion brought forward by the coalition asks judges to reverse “Right-to-Work” claiming it was drafted and voted upon in direct violation to state law.  Their motion includes evidence that the Michigan GOP purposefully planned to keep the public out of the capital during debate, according to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades website:

In the motion, which was filed in the state Court of Claims, the coalition asks the court to invalidate the right-to-work law because of the unprecedented measures that state leaders took to exclude the public from legislative proceedings when passing the law, including directing Republican staffers to fill the House gallery in order to prevent constituents from being able to observe the debate. The motion cites deposition testimony of GOP officials and staff telling legislative staff to take vacation days and sit in the gallery in plain clothes to deny seats to those who might oppose the legislation.

For example an e-mail from Peter Langley, director of the Senate Majority Policy Office, sent on December 6, reads: “The House is having Republican staff report to the House gallery for the day — something to consider for our side.”

On Dec. 10, Ralph Fiebig Jr. a House Republican constituent relations staff member, sent an email inviting all constituent relations staff to meet him at the Capitol the next morning. He wrote: “I would like everyone to get there before 6:55 a.m. in case they allow us to enter before 7 a.m. That way, we may be able to get up the stairs to the gallery entrance and in the front line before the public is allowed to enter the building.”

Another Republican staffer, Jennifer Kaminski, texted: “Speaker had staff go sit in the gallery this morning to take up space.”

Part of the controversy surrounding the passage of “Right-to-Work” is that it was done in the last days of a lame duck session as opposed to being brought forward in a manner which would have allowed full debate and public input.  Patrick Devlin, Secretary-Treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council called the behavior “outrageous”:

“We should never forget the underhanded way in which the legislation was adopted.  One of the most important pieces of legislation in Michigan history was adopted on a fast-track, in a lame-duck session behind closed doors without public input. It was outrageous.”

The coalition is comprised of journalist Bonnie Bucqueroux, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Brandon Dillon, Sen. Rebekah Warren, the Michigan Education Association (MEA), Michigan State AFL-CIO, Michigan Building & Construction Trades Council, and Change to Win.


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