LANSING – Michigan’s Republican legislators – with expansion of the federal health care law, chronic unemployment and broken infrastructure already on their plate – have found time to hold a hearing and ponder what to them is an important issue: illegal picketing.
The House Oversight Committee on Sept. 24 took testimony and advanced HB 4643 to the full House of Representative HB 4643. The bill would impose more stringent rules and put “teeth” in state laws regarding picketing, according to supporters. The bill advanced along party lines, with four Republicans in favor and two Democrats voting against.
The bill imposes a $1,000 fine against anyone who violates the mass picketing law, if the person is a previous offender. The fine could be imposed for each day of the violation. The bill also imposes a $10,000 fine against a union or organization that sponsors or assists in prohibited picketing activity that is found to be in violation of a court's injunction.
“There’s always time to screw with working people these days in Michigan,” said Todd Tennis, an IBEW lobbyist for Capitol Services. “In a right-to-work era here in Michigan, one of the few tools we have left is our ability to picket, to march, to rally. This is a big constitutional question: where do factory owners and other business owners’ rights start, and an individual’s rights to picket stop on public streets and sidewalks?”
Democrats and opponents of the bill said it’s a solution in search of a problem, with no legal action taking place against illegal picketing in the state in recent memory.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s Wendy Block said at the hearing that businesses need to be protected from harm that can be caused by pickets and protesters. She mentioned strike action in the Detroit newspaper dispute – which took place in 1995. Also mentioned were more recent actions by fast food workers protesting the wages in front of restaurants, but there were no formal protests filed. She called it “a solution to a real problem that does exist here.”
Tim Hughes, who represented the UAW at the hearing, said the bill is “trying to intimidate unions from their ability to picket when they're on strike. And we think they should have that ability.”
Current state law allows local law enforcement to stop unlawful picketing if an employer can show “irreparable harm.” HB 4643 takes things a step further, saying pickets break the law if any picketers engage in “prohibited conduct.” That conduct includes “unlawful threats, or force,” hindering “the pursuit of lawful work or employment,” as well as the obstruction or interference with a place of employment or public roads, and picketing at private residences.”
The bill not only allows courts to assess fines, it says the courts “shall
award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to a plaintiff who prevails in an
action brought under this subsection.” No surprise: there’s no mention in the
bill of picketers or unions getting their court costs and attorney fees paid for
if the court rules against the plaintiff.