The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 06, 2016

Petitions to repeal state's prevailing wage law are missing in action

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

If you have "declined to sign" the petition to repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 - good! - such inaction is the least you could do to help maintain fair wage levels for construction workers in Michigan.

Lately, there has been an observation creating cautious optimism among supporters of fair wages in the construction industry: sponsors of the prevailing wage repeal drive seem to have yanked signature-takers off the job in recent weeks.

"We have people keeping tabs on the petition drive to repeal prevailing wage, and the sponsors seemed to have pulled back," said Luke Canfora, a Michigan AFL-CIO organizer helping the building trades with the decline to sign effort. "It's hard to know why exactly, but there has definitely been a lull in the action." This year's petition drive began in March, but "the effort petered out in the beginning of April, and for the last two weeks, we have zero reports" of petitioners gathering signatures, Canfora said on April 25.

But Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin said even if there is a lull in signature gathering, there will be no let-up in educating union members, lawmakers and the public about the benefits of prevailing wage.

The petition drive could restart at any time, but the clock would still be ticking on the 180-day window that petitioners have to garner signatures. And it would seem to be almost a given that if the petition drive were to still go forward, sponsors would want to get the names approved by the state Board of Canvassers with enough time at the end of the year to have the repeal question placed before a conservative Legislature in 2016. More on that below.

The inactivity among petition gatherers is the latest unexpected twist in a long effort to overturn the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act, the state's most important law upholding construction workers' wages, while stabilizing the building industry.

Overturning the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act was made the top legislative priority of majority Republicans in the state House and Senate at the beginning of 2015. The state Senate did vote to repeal the law, but that effort stalled because Gov. Rick Snyder signaled that he would veto the repeal legislation if it got to his desk, claiming he has "serious problems" with the negative impact that repeal would have on the state's construction industry.

That led the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors to take the lead in forming a front group called Protect Michigan Taxpayers, which attracted money from deep-pocketed donors like the Devos family of Grand Rapids to help fund a petition drive last year to repeal prevailing wage. The state Constitution allows petition-derived legislation: if sufficient signatures of registered voters are gathered (a number corresponding to a percentage of voters in the most recent statewide election) to support an issue, then the matter automatically goes before the state Legislature for a vote (the governor has no veto power in such a scenario). If the Legislature fails to adopt the legislation brought by the petition, then the matter goes to a vote of the people on the next statewide ballot.

As we have reported, in mid-September, Protect Michigan Taxpayers announced they had collected more than 390,000 signatures, in an effort that only required 252,000 valid signatures. But not enough signatures were valid in what was an historically awful petition drive: challengers of the petition, led by the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, said they found that fewer than 221,061 of the submitted signatures submitted were valid, with approximately 123,000 signers eliminated because they were not registered to vote, and the presence of some 50,000 duplicate signatures.

ABC/Protecting Michigan Taxpayers vowed to restart the petition drive this year, and they hired a Howell company to do the work, and for a few weeks in March, the petition gatherers were going about their business outside malls, gas stations and libraries.

In March, ABC/Protect Michigan Taxpayers sued their petition gathering vendor, Silver Bullett LLC, for $1.35 million of the $1.8 million they said they lost during the failed effort. ABC/PMT said in its filing with Ingham County Circuit Court that it wants reimbursement "as a result of Silver Bullet's negligence, misconduct or material breach of the agreement."

If you follow the money, MIRS News Service reports that the group pushing for a prevailing wage repeal initiative "raised and spent little" in the most recent campaign finance-reporting period, Feb. 11 through April 20. The group spent $10,100 in that same period, for “online advertising” and “accounting fees,” according to the report descriptions. PMT reported having $14,365 in the bank at the end of the most recent period, a relative drop in the bucket compared to what it spent on last year's petition effort.

So did this year's petition effort grind to a halt because even billionaire donors like Dick Devos have limits on how many millions they will put up to overturn prevailing wage? Did it stop because ABC/Protect Michigan Taxpayers didn't think they could get enough valid signatures in the 180-day window allowed by state law? Do the ABC and their backers among Republican lawmakers have an alternative strategy in the Legislature to repeal prevailing wage in the December lame duck session after this year's elections - despite the governor's supposed opposition to repeal?

"Maybe it's because their money dried up, but who knows if that's why Protect Michigan Taxpayers stopped the petition," said Devlin. "Obviously, it's great news that they have stopped, but we're going to keep up with the education effort with our members, lawmakers and the general public, getting the word out about the importance of retaining prevailing wage. Because one thing we have learned through all this, is that the ultra-conservatives who want to repeal prevailing wage are relentless. One way or another, we haven't seen the last of them."