LANSING – A state bill that would impose daily fines of $1,000 on individuals and $10,000 on labor organizations for violations of new, more restrictive picketing regulations was shelved – for now – by state lawmakers on Feb. 25.
“After hundreds of phone calls and almost 3,000 e-mails, House Bill 4643 was removed from yesterday’s House agenda and was not rescheduled for today,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift on Feb. 26. “This is win for the First Amendment. HB 4643 would have a chilling effect on free speech by creating civil fines of up to $10,000 per day for picketing. It is a direct attack on your constitutional right to assemble.”
The bill hasn’t reappeared since, but could resurrect at any time. Sponsored by State Rep. Tom McMillan (R-Rochester), the bill first popped up on April 13 of last year, reappeared and went nowhere before the full House of Representatives last September , and then surfaced last month. It builds on existing state law, and places greater restrictions on mass pickets that restrict traffic and building ingress and egress, and would make it unlawful to picket at a residence.
But it’s the hefty new fines for breaking the law that are obviously intended to chill picketing, a tactic frequently used by labor groups to call attention to grievances.
Additionally, says a House Fiscal Policy Analysis, the bill would “provide an employer with the right to receive an injunction without demonstrating irreparable harm; direct courts to award court costs to prevailing plaintiffs; and enable courts to punish non-compliance as contempt.” Conversely, the bill doesn’t impose court costs or sanctions if a court rules against a plaintiff.
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.
Testimony last year by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s Wendy Block in favor of greater sanctions for illegal pickets said 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 actions last year by fast food workers protesting the wages in front of restaurants – where no formal protests were filed. She called it “a solution to a real problem that does exist here.”
Testifying against the bill, Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak) futilely offered amendments to the bill, which he said “deals with our very basic First Amendment freedoms.” Townsend offered an amendment to give judges in such picketing cases “maximum discretion” to endure picketers’ rights are being protected.
He also questioned the use of the words “sponsor” and “assist” in the bill as it pertained to a union’s involvement in a picket, and hence its potential liability for a $10,000 fine. The bill he said, must not allow judges to “impose a $10,000 fine for reasons we are not sure about.” His amendments failed, but the First Amendment rights of pickets may have prevailed in the long run.
Michigan AFL-CIO Legislative Director Mike Keller said the 3,000 e-mails and 500 phone calls protesting the legislation had the desired effect. “That effort worked,” he said, “and they yanked it from the agenda. At this point it looks like they don’t have enough votes.”