The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, August 31, 2012

Labor-friendly ballot question to end up before unfriendly Michigan Supreme Court

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING – With football season starting, perhaps it’s appropriate the Protect Our Jobs/Protect Working Families proposal has been kicked around the state government and the courts.

The latest move came on Aug. 22, when the Michigan Supreme Court punted the question of whether the labor-backed proposal to change the Michigan Constitution should be placed before the state’s voters on Nov. 6. The Supremes kicked the question back to a Michigan Court of Appeals panel (for the second time) for judicial review. The Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear the case on Aug. 27, the day we went to press.

Whatever they rule, the question is certain to end up back in front of the Michigan Supreme Court, and quickly, because deadlines are approaching for approving ballot language and printing ballots. However, the Supreme Court’s conservative makeup doesn’t bode well for the prospects of the proposal making the ballot.

The Protect Our Jobs ballot proposal morphed into the “Protect Working Families” proposal. It’s a statewide petition effort that started in March and garnered nearly 700,000 signatures, more than double the amount needed to put the issue on the November ballot.

The ballot proposal would enshrine various worker rights in the Michigan Constitution. Among them:

  • Establish the people’s rights to organize to form, join or assist unions and to bargain collectively with public or private employers regarding wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Prohibit employers from retaliating against their employees for exercising those rights.
  • Prohibit state and local governments from interfering with those rights.
  • Authorize the state to restrict or prohibit public employee strikes.
  • Protect current laws establishing minimum wages, hours and working conditions.
  • Prohibit government from interfering with agreements respecting employees’ financial support of their union.
  • Grant state civil service employees’ collective bargaining rights.

It is also expected to prevent conservative lawmakers from making Michigan a right-to-work state.

The case wound up in the courts after the state Board of Canvassers, which reviews petition efforts, deadlocked in their ruling along partisan lines on Aug. 15 (two Democrats for; two Republicans against, meaning it failed to pass). The Board of Canvassers had already approved the petition’s language back in March, but a memo released Aug. 3 by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) said that the ballot provision should not go on the ballot because it would create too many “Trojan horse-style” repeals and revisions affecting the state Constitution.

Opponents of the proposed amendment says it is so broad and over-reaching that even its sponsors don’t know what its impact will be.

But attorney Andrew Nickelhoff, representing Protect Our Jobs, told the three-judge appeals panel the proposal is straightforward and clear, and that Michigan courts “have long recognized that a proposed amendment cannot possibly contain references to all existing laws and constitutional provisions that it might affect,” according the MIRS news service.

“Consider the practical consequences” of requiring petitioners to re-publish every aspect of existing law a proposed amendment might touch upon, Nickelhoff said. Their petitions would “look like an ancient scroll… (and) be carried in a wheelbarrow,” he said.

The Appeals Court heard more than three hours of arguments on whether the Protect Our Jobs proposal could be summarized in a 100-word summary, as required by state law, that would appear on the election ballot.

MIRS said that attorneys for opponents of the proposal, including a coalition of business groups, Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette, told the court that Michigan law requires voters be notified when a proposed amendment will amend or alter other sections of the constitution or existing law. In literally dozens of instances, Protect Our Jobs does neither, said attorney Gary Gordon.

And so the case is expected to be the subject of an Aug. 27 ruling by the Court of Appeals, and then an appeal by the losing party to the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court, which has shown no inclination to further the causes of organized labor.