LANSING, Mich. — They have been playing defense elsewhere across the Midwest, but labor unions in Michigan have gone on the attack with a proposed first-in-the-nation amendment to the state constitution that would enshrine a right to collective bargaining for public — and private-sector workers — and invalidate any past or future laws to the contrary.
Proposal 2, backed by Michigan’s teachers and other public-employee unions, is being closely watched by labor and management groups across the country after a string of setbacks for the union movement in states such as Wisconsin and Indiana. Other states are likely to follow Michigan’s lead if voters approve the measure Nov. 6, analysts here say.
But Gov. Rick Snyder, who has a business background, generally has shunned the more confrontational approach toward labor adopted by fellow Republican governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Much of the state’s business establishment also strongly opposes the measure, saying it will hurt competitiveness and take a big bite out of the state’s ability to control spending.
“It turns government unions into a superlegislature,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy director of the pro-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich., which calls the measure costly and overreaching. “If passed, it will give government unions an effective veto over legislation passed by elected representatives.”
Dan Lijana, a spokesman for Protect Working Families, said the heart of Proposal 2 is about helping Michigan residents whose interests have been overlooked, in a state that has long been a bastion of union strength.
“Working families and collective bargaining have been under attack from corporate special interests,” he said. “This is about Michigan and protecting jobs.”
Language included in an appeals court ruling putting the measure on the state ballot ensured that “the amendment won’t repeal any laws,” Mr. Lijana said.
Supporters of the measure, including the state Democratic Party, have raised about $8 million to muster the vote, outpacing opponents, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, which have raised about $624,000, according to most recent state campaign finance records. One analyst put the final price tag for spending for and against the measure — including tens of millions of dollars of out-of-state money — at $40 million by the time voters head to the polls.
Union leaders acknowledge that the Snyder administration has not pursued the aggressive moves against public-sector unions and bargaining rights in other states, but they say the state government has taken smaller steps to curb union rights and privileges that make a constitutional amendment necessary.
As television ads blanket the airways and taped messages light up phones, Mr. Lijana says opponents, including Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution and Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, are misleading voters, including with claims that the measure could prohibit background checks on teachers and school personnel. He described “shadow” groups working against Proposal 2 that have pumped as much as $14 million in media buys into the state, money not disclosed in campaign finance reports.
Opponents argue that the real price tag for Proposal 2 could be an estimated loss of $1.6 billion or more in state savings, according to one economic projection. They also say the ballot initiative could reverse the drive for renewed productivity and economic reforms in a state that has fought mightily in the past couple of years to address its once-dismal fiscal course.
“I am a supporter of collective bargaining, but Proposal 2 would amend our constitution to change the way bargaining would work in our state. It could lead to unlimited wage increases and early retirements with lavish pensions — all at the taxpayers’ expense,” Mr. Snyder said in announcing his opposition to the ballot measure last month.
“It rolls back Michigan labor laws made over the last 30 or 40 years,” the governor said. “This proposal should be called ‘the Back in Time amendment.’ It would seriously harm Michigan’s ability to keep moving forward.”
Legal land mines
Mr. Vernuccio, the labor analyst, said topics and issues formerly not subject to collective bargaining could be up for grabs under a new amendment, putting all sorts of ideas for interpretation on the table and likely leading to many lawsuits.