LANSING – Organized labor leaders have high expectations that they have the right cards in hand to conduct a successful petition drive and then win a pro-worker ballot proposal on the Nov. 6 general election.
Opposite them are Republican leaders and their friends in the business community – sitting at the same virtual poker table – who have indicated they aren’t going to throw their cards down and walk away on this issue.
The conflict is over the Protect Our Jobs ballot initiative. It was introduced by organized labor on March 6, and promises to be the highest stakes labor-management showdown in Michigan since the 1930s. The drive needs to collect at least 322,609 petition signatures – the number needed to put pro-worker language permanently into the state constitution via the statewide Nov. 6 ballot.
The petition and ballot initiatives, if successful, would permanently enshrine pro-worker language into the state constitution. If labor is successful, Republican proposals to make Michigan a right-to-work state would be short-circuited, and the change in the constitution would trump and overturn any past, present and future anti-worker laws adopted by state Republicans.
“We know Indiana just became a right-to-work state, and they (state Republicans) want Michigan to jump off that cliff, too,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Conference this month. “Think about our path forward. We can’t just keep playing defense.”
But the Protect Our Jobs initiative is more than an effort to abolish talk of right-to-work in Michigan. It would invalidate the portion of the Emergency Financial Manager law that allows the governor to appoint an EFM in financially troubled communities and school districts, and unilaterally end union contracts. A recently passed law banning university graduate students from organizing would be overturned. The most recent anti-union example came on March 16, when Gov. Rick Snyder signed HB 4929 into law, which places restrictions on the public schools collecting union dues from teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
The reaction from state Republicans and the business community to the petition effort was predictable. They don’t like it.
Earlier this month, Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rick Studley told the building trades conference the chamber is neutral on the right-to-work issue for Michigan. He said that while he hadn’t had an opportunity to read the petition language, “it’s a mistake to think that the business community is going to sit on its hands.”
After Studley did read the language, his language grew a bit more testy. “It would be a serious mistake for the union bosses to think that they can hijack the state constitution and replace the state seal with the Solidarity House logo,” Studley told Tim Skubick, writing for Mlive. “We’ll fight fire with fire,” he promised.
Snyder has called for unions to reconsider the effort. “My concern is that could start a whole divisive atmosphere of other people trying to put right-to-work on the ballot, a whole bunch of things like that, and that would distract from the good things we've got going on,” the governor told the Detroit Free Press.
If by “good things going on,” Snyder is referring to the 80-plus pieces of anti-worker, anti-union legislation that have been introduced in the state Legislature, then it’s no wonder organized labor isn’t sitting its hands, either. Among other anti-worker laws, Snyder has refused to veto laws that: reduce unemployment compensation from 26 to 20 weeks, severely restricted injured workers’ access to workers compensation benefits, and prohibit collective bargaining terms in government contracts that involve the use of government grants, tax subsidies and abatements. A law that Snyder signed, and a federal judge overturned, outlawed the use of project labor agreements by local units of government.
“This shouldn't be a divisive issue,” said Zack Pohl, spokesman for We Are the People. “If anything, this proposal will help provide a needed counterweight to Lansing politicians and corporate CEOs, who have moved one anti-worker measure after another over the past year without doing anything to create jobs. Michigan workers helped create the middle class, and now we need to protect our collective bargaining rights to help rebuild our economy.“We hope everyone will support this important proposal to help strengthen the middle class, and rebuild our economy.”