It was Monday, after school. Toni Coral and four of her fellow high school teachers in Hamtramck, Mich., were finalizing plans for the next morning.
They would meet at 5:30 for the two-hour drive to the statehouse in Lansing, Mich. Republicans were expected to pass legislation on Tuesday that would cripple, if not eliminate, unions. Coral and the other teachers were taking the day off, as allowed by their contract, to join thousands of fellow union workers in protest.
“Bring a towel,” the more experienced teacher said to Coral and her colleagues. “Bring a bottle of water, too.”
“Why?” Coral asked.
“Because there might be pepper spray again,” he said, referring to an incident at the Capitol the previous week when Michigan police sprayed protesters trying storm Senate chambers. “The wet towel will help you breathe.”
This was a first in Coral’s 17 years of teaching. She has an 8-year-old son. She loves her job and her students. She had to think about what she might be getting herself into.
She drove home and made dinner. Her son was with his father, so she had the time, and the silence, to consider consequences. She got back into her car and headed to the neighborhood hardware store.
“I need a pair of goggles,” she told the woman behind the counter. Coral figured the woman to be about her age, 45. She explained why she needed eye protection, and the woman handed her one of the better goggles in stock.
“Use these,” she told Coral. “They’ll seal tightly. No gas will get in.” Coral nodded.
“I can’t believe this,” she told the woman as she waited for her receipt. “I can’t believe I’m a high school English teacher, and I’m buying goggles because I might get pepper-sprayed.”
The woman shrugged her shoulders and smiled.
“You do what you have to do,” she said.
For Coral, that meant bearing witness to the Republican majority’s power grab to break the rights and bludgeon the souls of hourly wage earners.
“Every year around the world, there are people trying to organize workers, and they disappear,” she said. “The least I could do was show up.”
On Tuesday, as expected, Michigan’s lame-duck legislature rammed through so-called “right to work” measures that ban unions from requiring workers to pay membership dues. That evening, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder broke his word and signed the legislation into law.
Without dues, there are no unions.
Without unions, there is no collective bargaining.
Without collective bargaining, workers’ rights become desperate hopes that are bound to die long, ugly deaths.
Barack Obama – the pro-worker Democrat who was just soundly re-elected as president by his fellow Americans – got it exactly right this week when he called Michigan’s new law “the right to work for less.” This legislation was an act of revenge by a defeated party.
The unions have vowed to continue fighting, perhaps with a ballot initiative and by targeting incumbent Republicans for defeat. Here in Ohio, voters overwhelmingly defeated a similar law in 2011. It can be done, but it takes a toll on people, I’m telling you, especially when they’re already feeling so belittled, so targeted. The wounds here have not healed.
Toni Coral, the English teacher in Hamtramck, said she is in for the long fight – for as long as she has a job, anyway. She spent half of our phone interview talking about her students. Most of them live in poverty, and she worries about what all this change will mean for them.
She’s also afraid that, once the new law goes into effect, many of her fellow teachers will stop paying the $62 a month in union dues.
“I keep thinking about how they’re trying to divide and conquer us,” she said. “How they use social wedge issues to get us to vote against our own economic interests. How we have to stop letting them turn us against one another.”
How she had to buy goggles before she felt safe to protest her state legislature for workers’ rights.
Add that to the list.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.