Unions make a stand for fixed rights in Michigan

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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.

“Things like last-in, first-out, teacher tenure reform that we passed in Michigan — those are no longer on the table,” he said. “If Proposal 2 passes, unions can bargain for them. It makes it so that the people’s elected representatives have no say legislatively over wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment. It’s Civics 101. Constitution trumps legislation.”

A poll of 600 likely voters conducted by the Lansing, Mich., firm EPIC-MRA from Sept. 8-11 found 48 percent supporting Proposal 2 and 43 percent opposing it. Nine percent of state voters remained undecided, and the margin of error was 4 percentage points, making it a tight contest on a state ballot that also features a competitive presidential race and four other measures.

Close to 18 percent of Michigan workers are members of unions. Among those who are employed in the private sector, about 12 percent are unionized.

Wendy Block, the director of health policy and human resources at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, calls the proposal “dangerous and unprecedented.”

She noted that no other state has a similar provision. If passed, she said, Proposal 2 would undermine Michigan’s competitiveness.

“The general impact of such a measure is that it will only protect 3 percent of the state’s population, leaving 97 percent to foot the bill,” Ms. Block said. “Business leaders are extremely concerned, as should be local and state officials and citizens of this state. Anything that is a subject of collective bargaining cannot be decided by the legislature, or local units of government, or school districts moving forward.”

Strained budgets

The law would add another burden to already-stressed state and local budgets, she said.

“The proposal doesn’t enumerate one by one, so anything addressed in any collective-bargaining agreement across the state could nullify state and local laws on the books,” she said. “Even the proponents themselves say they don’t know how many laws this could impact; it may be 80, it may be more or less. The possibilities are virtually endless. It will ultimately be up to the court to decide.”

The governor’s budget director, John Nixon, recently told the Stateline.com news service that Mr. Snyder is not opposed to labor unions but fears the cost to the budget and the unforeseen fallout financially and legally if Proposal 2 passes.

“We like bargaining with our employee unions, but you’ve got to have the right balance,” he told the news service. He cited in particular Lansing’s recent efforts to cap financial commitments made to retirees, caps that Proposal 2 could call into question.

While public unions are certain to gain with the measure’s passage, private-sector unions may not be affected so broadly as they are covered by federal law. Other states are watching closely as political battles over union power have been waged in such places as Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, which recently became a right-to-work state.

“If it passes in Michigan, watch out, because it’s coming to a state near you and you could very likely see it coming to states like California, for example, that have the constitutional amendment ballot-initiative process,” Mr. Vernuccio said.

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