By David Sole
December 21 marked the end of the 99th session of the Michigan legislature. Elections held on November 6 changed the face of the state’s right-wing Republican political representation and saw a furious assault against peoples’ rights in this lame duck session. In January, Michigan will have a Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Although Republicans held their majorities, there will be five more Democrats in the state Senate and five more in the House of Representatives.
Among the most outrageous and cynical actions taken was the gutting of an increase in the minimum wage and sick time off. A massive petition campaign succeeded in getting 400,000 signatures to place on the ballot a vote to increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022. Another initiative succeeded for a vote for employers of over 10 workers to provide up to 40 hours paid sick leave and 32 hours of additional unpaid leave.
The right-wing-dominated state legislature then voted to enact both into law prior to the November voting. This effectively kept both off the ballot. Then in lame duck session, the same officials voted to gut the very legislation they had previously passed. They voted to have the minimum wage reach a maximum of $12.05 eight years later, by 2030. They also exempted employers with 50 or fewer workers from the sick leave provisions and reduced the maximum to only 40 hours sick time.
The minimum wage will increase from $9.25 to $9.45 on January 1, 2019, instead of the original $10. Cost of living for minimum wage calculations was also gutted from the law. The biggest attack, however, was to eliminate tipped workers from reaching the full minimum wage, locking them in at 38 percent of the minimum wage. The biggest push in the rank and file initiative process had been under the “One Fair Wage” slogan to end the sub-minimum wages for restaurant and other tipped workers.
Not satisfied with defeating the tremendous effort that had been needed to get initiatives onto the ballot, the lame duck legislature then passed a law to make gathering petition signatures much more difficult, limiting signatures to 15 percent from any congressional district. This law will particularly harm initiatives benefiting people of color in Michigan who are concentrated in Michigan’s cities.
Environmentalists are also concerned about the passage of HB1197, which approved construction of a tunnel under the Great Lakes’ Straits of Mackinac for petroleum pipelines of the Enbridge corporation.
Additionally, the legislature passed a bill allowing it to designate its own legal representatives to defend state laws against legal challenges, where previously that was the province of the state attorney general. This bill is specifically seen as an attempt to circumvent new attorney general Dana Kessel’s intent to refrain from intervening in cases challenging the constitutionality of a Michigan bill allowing adoption agencies from refusing to consider same sex couples for adoption. Kessel was the lead attorney in the case establishing the right to gay marriage in Michigan.
The federal government has also been busy approving limits on Medicaid availability in Michigan. These limits include a minimum 80 hours of work per month requirement for able-bodied adults to receive Medicare and an imposition of a 5 percent fee on Medicaid recipients whose income is above the federal poverty line. The House Fiscal Agency estimates that 5 to 10 percent of the 540,000 Michigan residents who now received Medicaid under the Healthy Michigan program will lose their benefits.
Protesters attended and testified at many hearings on these and other proposed bills. Rallies, marches and lobbying efforts also confronted the right-wing agenda in the Michigan State Capitol.
Using lame duck sessions to ram through unpopular legislation is not new in Michigan. On December 11, 2012, legislators made Michigan a right-to-work state, seriously undermining the right of workers to strong union protection. At that time, more than 10,000 workers surrounded the state Capitol. Calls for a general strike or other direct action, however, were decried by the top union officials present, who instead directed the workers to wait for future elections to overturn this hated anti-union legislation. However, Democratic Party candidates for Michigan’s top offices never put forward this demand and failed to mobilize any struggle that might achieve real results.
Michigan’s Public Act 4 allowing the imposition of an emergency manager over Michigan localities was enacted in 2011. The law was overturned by the voters in November 2012 by a statewide initiative put it on the ballot. A month later, the lame duck legislators voted in Public Act 436 a new law authorizing the appointment of emergency managers and made it impossible to overturn by a popular petitioning campaign. Using this law, most African-American cities were placed under emergency management, including Benton Harbor and Flint.
The whole world knows what happened when the emergency manager in Flint caused the water system of Flint to poison the entire population, a situation that has continued for over four years.
In Detroit, the emergency manager took the city into bankruptcy with the specific goal of looting a solvent pension system. Cuts to public employee retirees’ pensions and health care were then used to pay off bonds to the biggest banks. About 80 percent of the money saved in the bankruptcy came from these retirees.
These lame duck shenanigans, repeated in other states like Wisconsin, further erode popular confidence in the capitalist electoral system in the United States. Together with voter suppression, gerrymandering of districts, outright fraud, manipulation and chicanery, the people are slowly learning the valuable lesson that the two-party system of elections is designed to keep one class, and one class alone, in power: the class of bankers and billionaires.
This ruling class, sometimes called the “one percent” (but more correctly the 0.1 percent, or even the 0.01 percent), has never been overcome or defeated in an electoral process. Only mass struggle has proven effective in exerting power over the enormous wealth that is produced by working people but is dominated by and only benefits the tiny capitalist elite.