By Marty Mulcahy
LANSING - As it has been for the past six years of total Republican control in our state's capitol, the state of organized labor in Michigan is, in many ways, a continual loop of whistling past the graveyard.
Here's the good news: working people and organized labor eased relatively unscathed through the Lame Duck state Legislature's session at the end of 2016.
And the bad news: "The incoming caucus is going to be even more conservative than the caucus that we see here in Lansing right now for this term," said Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt Twp.) late last year as the lame duck session came to a close. Leonard will be speaker of the Michigan House next year.
"As it is, labor fared pretty well in the Lame Duck," said Patrick "Shorty" Gleason, legislative director of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. "In 2017, the challenge continues for us to find lawmakers who will vote with us on our issues."
More good news: repeal of the state's Prevailing Wage Act is apparently not atop the incoming speaker's legislative agenda, as it was over the course of the past two years for Republican leadership in Lansing. While that certainly doesn't mean the repeal issue won't come up in the new term, Leonard told Crain's Detroit Business that his top three agenda items are fixing the "broken" teacher pension system, instituting early interventions for mental health, and improving access to the skilled trades.
Looking forward and backward, following are some updates on worker-related legislative issues:
*Much to the delight of the building trades, a new blueprint was approved for Michigan's energy industry at the end of the Lame Duck sesson (see related article).
*Two anti-union bills that would make it more difficult for workers and unions to picket - and easier for employers to hire worker replacements - did not advance in the state Senate at the end of last year. House Bills 4643 and 4630 were adopted in the House. One bill would have increased fines against individual picketers to $1,000 per person per day, and $10,000 for an organization, if the picket is deemed to be illegal. The bill was adopted mostly along party lines, with Democrats saying it is a solution in search of a problem with so few examples of illegal picketing.
Look for the legislation to be taken up again this year.
*The state Legislature backed off on reforming pension plans for teachers, police officers and firefighters - with "reforms" meaning moving new hires into 401k plans. With the low pay in all of those professions, the benefits of a formal pension is one of the few carrots workers have to go into those lines of work. Republicans are hot on the heels of taking away those pensions, especially for teachers, because of what they claim are the associated high costs.
But Gov. Rick Snyder put the brakes on their plans last year, pointing out that ending or converting the pensions would actually cost local communities and school districts billions of dollars. As Leonard said, the issue will be resurrected this year.
*Tens of thousands of unemployed Michigan residents attempted to defraud the state by filing bogus unemployment insurance claims? Uh, no. Those claims of worker fraud were determined by a new state computer program used for two years beginning in October 2013 - but it turns out the computer program itself made false assumptions, on 93.5 percent of the cases. And, the incorrect penalties it assessed not only took money from innocent jobless workers, it pumped a huge surplus into the state's Unemployment Insurance Fund.
Republican lawmakers "tapped that money to fill the budget hole created by years of tax giveaways to corporations in our state," says Electablog. A bill signed by Gov. Snyder in the Lame Duck session "transfers $10 million in 'surplus' unemployment insurance funds to help balance the state budget at the same time thousands of Michigan residents are claiming millions of dollars in benefits and penalties were unlawfully taken from them after the state wrongly accused them of unemployment insurance fraud."
A class action lawsuit is seeking to recover funds for those jilted by the jobless insurance collection.