LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Labor unions, Democrats and others sued to block Michigan's right-to-work law Thursday, asking that the measure be struck down because people were locked out of the state Capitol while the contentious measure was debated.
The Ingham County suit does not contest the substance of the law that prohibits requiring workers to pay union dues or fees. It instead calls for the law to be invalidated because protesters could not enter the Capitol building for more than four hours on Dec. 6 as bills were being amended and discussed.
"We have a sacred right to peacefully assemble and petition our government. When there is dissent and emotions are running high, our elected leaders should encourage more open debate, not close the doors to concerned voters," Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement.
About an hour after Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and GOP legislative leaders announced their plan to quickly pass a right-to-work law, state police cited concerns about safety and the Capitol's structural integrity and locked the building's doors. That was just after noon. Protesters already inside the building could stay, but hundreds more had to stay outside until approximately 4:45 p.m., according to the complaint.
Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette ordered the doors open after a legal challenge. Earlier that day, eight people were arrested for resisting and obstructing when they tried to push past two troopers guarding a Senate door, according to authorities.
The state Open Meetings Act says a decision by a public body can be invalidated if the body violates the law that requires government transparency.
While the Capitol doors were closed, legislators substituted the right-to-work provisions into existing bills and began debating them. The House and Senate took votes on the legislation after the doors were reopened and finished sending bills to Snyder on Dec. 11, when he signed them.
Defendants named in the suit are the state of Michigan, House, Senate, a state police captain and "unknown" public officials. Plaintiffs include the Michigan Education Association, other unions, three Democratic lawmakers and a journalism instructor at Michigan State University who also runs a local online news website
"Regardless of how you feel about right-to-work laws, everyone has a stake in seeing that our government conducts business in a democratic and transparent way," said Karla Swift, president of the Michigan State AFL-CIO. "Any law passed while citizens were locked out of their Capitol building should be struck down."
Those bringing the suit allege Republican staffers were directed to sit in the public gallery overlooking the House chamber, preventing right-to-work opponents from sitting there. The complaint also says House members were prevented from leaving the chamber, so constituents could not communicate with them before the votes.
In addition to alleging Open Meetings Act violations, plaintiffs also said their state and federal constitutional rights to free speech and assembly were violated.
Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, said that once he found out the doors had been closed by state police, Bolger worked to get them open as quickly as possible.
"People were there watching what we were doing. To make it sound like there was some sort of clandestine operation going on in the House or Senate that day is disingenuous," Adler said.
A state police spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on a pending lawsuit. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville declined to comment.
Greg McNeilly, president of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a right-to-work proponent, said in a statement that the suit is a "blatant and disgusting" attempt by union leaders and Democratic lawmakers to "line their own pockets by oppressing working-class Michigan families."
Earlier this week, Snyder asked the Michigan Supreme Court to rule quickly on the constitutionality of the right-to-work law that takes effect in late March. He said questions on how it would impact 35,000 unionized state employees must be resolved before new contract talks begin this summer.