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Updated: Thursday, 17 Mar 2011, 2:59 PM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 16 Mar 2011, 8:06 AM EDT
LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A day that saw at least 3,000 union members and others rally at the Capitol against Gov. Rick Snyder's proposals to tax pensions and give emergency financial managers sweeping new powers ended with protesters being arrested Wednesday evening for refusing to leave the building.
Police arrested five young adults for trespassing about two and a half hours after they staged a sit-in in the Capitol rotunda after the doors were locked at 5:30 p.m. More people had been inside, but most left voluntarily when state and Capitol police asked them to go.
A sixth person was arrested in a melee outside the Capitol while the five were being driven away in a sheriff's department van.
Earlier in the evening, police arrested a handful of others who tried to open the locked doors and let others into the building. A few protesters said they were hit with pepper spray when they tried to rush inside or film what was going on in the building.
State police Capt. Gary Nix told WWJ-AM that authorities arrested a total of 14 people at the Capitol --13 on misdemeanor charges and one on a felony for breaking into the building through a bathroom window. Nix said he expected them to be held overnight in an Ingham County sheriff's lockup and released on bond Thursday.
Despite the protests, Snyder signed six bills Wednesday evening giving sweeping new powers to emergency financial managers appointed by the state of Michigan to run struggling cities and schools, including the ability to terminate contracts with unions.
Many Democrats and labor unions criticized it as a state power grab that could set up virtual dictatorships and strip power from local elected officials. The Republican governor said the legislation will let the state offer assistance earlier when local governments and school districts are in financial distress and give financial managers better tools to exert change.
"For too long in this state, we've avoided making the tough decisions," Snyder said. "But waiting limits options and makes the solutions much more painful."
Wednesday's rally, which began at noon and was populated by waves of protesters who showed up at different times all afternoon, 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 in the early afternoon, 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 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.
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 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 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."
Republicans swept the state's top offices in November 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.