Monday, April 04, 2011

Bridge for Unity Walk calls for citizen involvement against Gov. Snyder's budget cuts, new legislation

By Michele Bourdieu

Families with children were very visible at the Bridge for Unity Walk last Saturday, Apr. 2, in Houghton. More than 150 concerned citizens participated in the Walk on the Portage Lift Bridge, protesting Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's budget with proposed cuts to schools, taxes on the working poor and seniors' retirement, and tax breaks for corporations -- as well as the Emergency Financial Manager legislation, which could allow the governor to fire elected officials and take over municipalities and school districts. (Video clip by Keweenaw Now)

HOUGHTON -- Speeches, signs, cheers, drums, bells, horns and camaraderie marked the Bridge for Unity Walk last Saturday, Apr. 2, in Houghton. Organizers of the event estimated more than 150 people joined in the Walk.

Marching peacefully across the Portage Lift Bridge and back, participants included union members concerned about Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's policies, young families and teachers concerned about children's education, and citizens objecting to provisions of Gov. Snyder’s budget that would eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for Michigan’s working poor, tax seniors’ pensions and eliminate tax breaks on charitable donations to public universities, while extending $1.8 billion in tax breaks to corporations.

At the Houghton end of the Portage Lift Bridge, participants in the Apr. 2 Bridge for Unity Walk, many with signs, gather to listen to speakers before beginning the Walk across the bridge to Hancock and back. Click on photos for larger versions. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)

Terry LaJeunesse, co-organizer of the event and local director of the Michigan Education Association (MEA) welcomed the crowd assembled below the Lift Bridge for the Walk.

"Small business suffers when the masses lose their buying power. The masses -- public sector workers and lower income families -- are losing buying power under Snyder's plans," LaJeunesse said. "Public school employees alone in Houghton and Baraga (counties) will lose up to $6 million a year of buying power. What small businesses are going to be able to afford a hit like that?"

LaJeunesse announced that more events would follow this one, including a Town Hall meeting to be held at 6:30 p.m.Thursday, Apr. 7 (place to be announced). He intends to invite State Rep. Matt Huuki.

"We want Mr. Huuki to explain to us how the budget plan is going to benefit Michigan," LaJeunesse said. "It will benefit a few large corporations in Michigan, but it isn't going to benefit Michigan."

Jeremy Sandrik, a graduate student in chemistry at Michigan Tech and guest writer and photographer for Keweenaw Now, pointed out the importance of solidarity, working together, like a family.

Jeremy Sandrik, Michigan Tech graduate student and writer and photographer, addresses the crowd gathered for the Bridge for Unity Walk near the Portage Lift Bridge on Apr. 2.

"What we do today sends a message," Sandrik said. "What we're talking about today is preserving democracy -- especially preserving democracy at the local level."

He reminded the crowd, too, that their actions would give an example to the younger generation. He stressed the importance of not just preaching to the choir -- the importance of trying to engage people with different viewpoints, including members of the Tea Party (who are planning a rally in Houghton for April 16) -- and the necessity of working together.

An excerpt from Jeremy Sandrik's speech to the crowd gathered near the Portage Lift Bridge on Apr. 2. Sandrik encourages participants gathered for the Bridge for Unity Walk to get to know the people walking with them and to share the message of the Walk with people of different viewpoints.*** (Video clip by Keweenaw Now)

"What we're doing today has got to build momentum," Sandrik said."We've got to keep this going."

Retired Calumet High School (CHS) English teacher Barbara Simila introduced her former student David Torola, who now teaches English at CHS and who has also taught in Lake Linden.

David Torola, Calumet High School English teacher, speaks on what it's like to be a teacher in Michigan today.

Torola described teaching public school in Michigan as "both wonderful and horrible."

"It is wonderful because I get to work every day with some of the most creative, humorous, happy and energetic people in the world -- the children of Michigan," Torola said. "I get to turn kids on to good books, great prose and poetry." (He quoted William Carlos Williams' famous poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow.")

Praising his colleagues as well, Torola said he believed there are dedicated teachers in every public school in Michigan.

"I love my job," he said.

On the other hand, Torola said, Governor Snyder does not support the work of public school teachers and other public employees.

"The future of Michigan is not with the corporations our governor would like to give tax breaks to on the backs of the poor, the elderly, public employees, union workers, our schools or our children. While I love what I do, teaching in Michigan can be horrible," Torola noted. "As a teacher with nine years of experience, I make less than I did 15 years ago as a (non-union) carpenter."

Torola said Michigan's problems should not be blamed on public employees, including teachers who work hard every day for the children of Michigan -- who are its future. He urged the audience to open their wallets and give to political candidates who will support Michigan's real future -- what is right and best for all of Michigan.

"Complacency is no longer an option," Torola added. "We must act to save our state from the oligarchy Governor Snyder is trying to put in power."

Elise Matz, co-organizer of the Walk and Houghton County Democratic Party Communications vice chair, spoke about Gov. Snyder's Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) legislation that allows him to declare a "financial emergency" in towns or school districts and appoint someone to fire local elected officials, break contracts, seize and sell assets, and eliminate services. Under this law, whole school districts can be eliminated without public participation.

Elise Matz, co-organizer of the Bridge for Unity Walk and Communications vice chair of the Houghton County Democratic Party, encourages those attending the event to contact their representatives about the recent Emergency Financial Manager legislation.

"Someone's going to decide if you have too many teachers in your school; someone's going to decide if you have too many police officers in your community; they're going to decide if that park that's been in the middle of your town for 100 years is going to continue to be public property," Matz said. "If you believe in representative democracy, then the Emergency Financial Manager law is an outrage -- and we want to send that message to our representatives -- that if they support this they do not support us."

Brian Rendel, Houghton County Democratic Party co-chair, welcomed any Republicans in the crowd but noted the November 2010 elections gave Republicans their third chance at "complete control" of Michigan government (from the State Supreme Court and Attorney General to the Senate, the House and the Governor).

Brian Rendel, Houghton County Democratic Party co-chair, calls for unity among working people, retirees, unemployed, labor unions -- all those who object to giant corporations that pay little or no taxes and even receive tax benefits in the billions.*

"Democrats haven't had that control since 1985," Rendel said. "The group of Republican representatives, senators, and governor who promised voters jobs are delivering the opposite. Instead of working hard to bring Michigan better jobs, they are working hard to make working harder for workers. Michigan's Republican-controled government has declared war on Michigan's workers with 40 pieces of new legislation -- each a smack-down of Michigan workers."

Rendel reminded the crowd that corporate America pays little or no taxes and even gets money back from the government in tax benefits. He gave as an example General Electric. Despite their opening a business Smart Zone here in Houghton, with 50 engineering jobs, GE did not contribute any of their $14 billion in profits ($5 billion in the U.S.) to support Smart Zones, infrastructure or services in this area since they paid no taxes, Rendel noted.

"They didn't pay a dime. In fact, they actually got something called a tax benefit -- of $3.2 billion. How is that possible?" Rendel asked. "There is no shortage of money, people. None. We have a shortage of fairness."

Rendel noted American workers -- including those in Michigan -- had good jobs and benefits when America put people first.

"Tell State Senator Casperson to stop pandering to corporate greed and to start paying attention to human need. Tell State Representative Huuki to stop voting the way his party tells him and start voting the way his constituents tell him. Tell Governor Rick to keep his emergency managers out of the Copper Country and start respecting the good people of Michigan like he promised voters he would do," Rendel said.

Calling on everyone to unite -- from professors to nurses to sanitation workers, families, retirees, poor, unemployed, police officers, labor unions and more -- Rendel started a chant among the crowd: "We are one!"*

As the crowd heads toward the stairs leading up to the Lift Bridge, children carry signs showing support for their teachers.

Marchers then climbed the stairs up to the bridge and crossed to the Hancock side and back, attracting many honks of positive support from passing cars. During the event, several expressed their views to Keweenaw Now.

Clarence McDonald, retired United Auto Workers chair and former chair of the Houghton County Democratic Party, noted his concerns about Snyder's Emergency Financial Managers.

"That is an accident waiting to happen," McDonald said. "These financial advisers could absolutely run the community in the ground."

He added the budget can't be balanced with the proposed cuts.

"They're going to have to raise some taxes and quit trying to do it on the backs of all the poor people, the young people, the old people -- they need to get to the affluent ones," McDonald said.

Clyde Mikkola of Calumet said he wasn't sure he agreed with most of what was happening at this event but he attended it to see who these people are and what they think. He said one thing he did agree on was the opposition to Governor Snyder's "sending people into areas where municipal governments have jurisdiction and having him override their decisions."

Nancy Herck of L'Anse, a physician's assistant at Baraga County Memorial Hospital (thus, a public employee), said she was originally from Wisconsin but has lived 15 years in the U.P.

"This is too important to let go. I tell people it doesn't matter if you are blue collar, white collar, green collar or no collar," Herck said. "We are all in this together. We have got to take a stand. They'll always be rich people, but it doesn't mean they get to rape and pillage."

Brian Hart of Escanaba, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW Local 510), said he came to the Walk to support his union brothers for the right to collective bargaining -- not only in Michigan but also in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

Commenting on Governor Snyder, Hart said, "He's not my favorite governor -- not today."

John Pastore, Michigan Tech mathematics major, who writes for the university's comedy publication, The Daily Bull, said he was attending this protest rally because he could agree with the message.

"Rick Snyder's budget is rather foolish at best, and it's engineered to cause chaos. Well, that's kind of flagrantly unethical," Pastore noted, "so I'm here to make a moral stand."

Scott Dianda, former Democratic candidate for local state representative (who lost to Matt Huuki despite knocking on thousands of doors during his campaign last summer and fall) joined the Walk, carrying a sign in support of education.

Scott Dianda, former Democratic candidate for the state representative seat now held by Matt Huuki, pauses on the Lift Bridge with his former teacher, Barbara Simila.

"We definitely have to get out and make it known that we are not going to stand around while a lot of our local governments are stripped. We need to get out there and support our education system. We're here to support all of our working people in Michigan, in our U.P.," Dianda said. "(People) need to be aware that these folks work hard every day. And we need to have our state services. We must have our state services."

John Slivon of Hancock said he believes people need to realize that they have an eight-hour day and time on weekends -- and Social Security -- because of the work done by progressives in the past.

"What the Tea Party doesn't understand is that if you have effective government you've got to be willing to pay for it. That's just the price of freedom," Slivon said.

Elise Matz, co-organizer of the event, said she couldn't be happier about the turnout.

"I really hope that this is a way to open a dialogue -- with Matt Huuki at least," Matz said. "I wonder if both Hukki and Casperson realize what they have done, because they ran to keep Lansing out of our lives and they're putting Lansing right in the middle of our lives, in our communities (by voting for recent legislation)."

Brian Hoduski, Houghton County Democratic Party co-chair, said he thought it was great to see people move to action, to be brave enough to show their community where they stand on issues -- especially on cuts to schools.

Houghton County Democratic Party Co-chair Brian Hoduski, far left with "Recall Rick" sign, chats with other local residents during the Walk across the Portage Lift Bridge.

"These Copper Country schools here can't take this. There's going to be kids on buses almost half the school day if they force these Upper Peninsula schools to consolidate," Hoduski said. "Can you imagine if you live in Ewen Trout Creek and they close that school and you've got to go to Ontonagon?"

Hoduski questioned whether legislators in Lansing have any idea about rural schools -- or care about them.

"Republican or Democrat, you ought to care about this issue if you care about your kids," he said.

Hoduski, Matz and Rendel all urged people to contact State Representative Matt Huuki and State Senator Tom Casperson about these issues.**

More photos ...

Marchers representing the United Steelworkers display their banner as the Walk begins.

Sunshine contributes to marchers' enthusiasm and spirit of camaraderie during the Walk.

Editor's Notes:

*See the "We Are One" video of this Apr. 2 Bridge for Unity Walk by Brian Rendel and friends published on YouTube. The video is also available now on the Houghton County Democrats' Web site.

"We Are One" is also the slogan of a movement inspired by a moment of history: On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone to stand with sanitation workers demanding their dream: The right to bargain collectively for a voice at work and a better life. The workers were trying to form a union with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).

During the week of April 4, 2011, unions, people of faith, civil and human rights activists, students and other progressive allies will host a range of community- and workplace-focused actions. Click here for the "We Are One" Web site.

** Contact Matt Huuki, District 110 state representative, at 906-231-2546 or toll-free at (888) 663-4031 or email him at or

Contact Tom Casperson, District 38 state senator at (517) 373-7840 or email him through his Web site.

*** See Jeremy Sandrik's March 24, 2011, Keweenaw Now article, "Congressman Benishek meets, greets Keweenaw constituents; awesomeness ensues."

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