The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 23, 2018

State eyeballs prevailing wage repeal signatures

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - The initial fate of the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act will be determined in the next few days with the issuance of two key state rulings on an effort to repeal the law, but the ultimate fate of the law may not be decided until August - or perhaps even November.

And the fact that the repeal of the state's prevailing wage law is not currently a done deal is a minor miracle, according to John Pirich, the lead attorney for the union-backed group fighting the repeal effort. Pirich spoke to delegates on March 6 at the 59th Legislative Conference of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.

Pirich said a "huge cushion" of nearly 130,000 extra signatures on a petition effort turned in last year gave the union-backed group that hired him, Protecting Michigan Jobs (PMJ), little cause for hope that enough invalid signatures could be found to overturn the petition drive. The repeal petition was sponsored by the Associated Builders and Contractors- Michigan and their front group, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers. PMJ hoped for a repeat of the ABC-backed effort in 2015, when a similar petition effort was overturned because a sample revealed that more than 40 percent of the signatures were invalid.

"We thought there was virtually no opportunity to knock them off this time, there was such a huge cushion," Pirich told the delegates. "A 130,000 cushion is pretty unbelievable."

But lightning struck twice. On Jan. 20, the Michigan Board of Canvassers said that a state examination of an initial sampling of 535 petition signatures found it was just shy of enough valid names, triggering a greater sampling totaling 4,443 names. The state Bureau of Elections is expected to issue their findings regarding the review of the entire sampling of signatures any day now.

But the unofficial challenge results turned in Feb. 14 by union-backed Protect Michigan Jobs found that at least 1,850 signatures should be invalidated, which would drop the valid signature count to about 361 short of the 2,954 necessary in the sample to approve the petition, under the state's formula.

When its examination of the sample signatures is concluded, the state Bureau of Elections will recommend to the four-member state Board of Canvassers whether or not the petition should be approved. A minimum of three Board of Canvassers members must vote to approve (or deny) the petition. A 2-2 vote on that panel means denial of the petition. 

Whatever the margin on the Board of Canvassers vote, either petition sponsor PMT or petition challenger PMJ, if they lose, will almost certainly take the case through the state courts. Pirich estimated that the case could reach the state Supreme Court by early August.

"We have no idea if we're going to prevail on this challenge," Pirich said. "But we're a lot closer than we ever would have imagined. And because of the extra time and extra steps we have taken we will have a better shot to either deny certification or get into the courts without certification and letting the courts decide."

If the case does wind up in the state Supreme Court, and the justices there potentially deny the challenge and uphold the petition, then the repeal language goes to an up or down vote in the Michigan Legislature. Lobbying is ongoing with ruling Republican state lawmakers over this issue, but it is expected that a majority of those lawmakers will vote to repeal.

That's why an ongoing union-backed petition, the Construction Workers Fair Wage Act, is being circulated. The effort is seeking to get more than 252,000 signatures to institute a new statewide prevailing wage law should the existing law be extinguished. Petitions are available to be signed at local building trades union halls.

Pirich said if the Protect Michigan Jobs challenge holds up with the state and in the courts, the six-inch-thick stack of petition sheets holding those 4,433 names revealed a number of potential minefields that may have blown up in the face of the reputable Howell-based signature-gathering company hired by Protecting Michigan Taxpayers.

*Pirich said the sample revealed that only between 68 and 73 percent of the people who signed were registered voters. "That's incredibly low," Pirich said.

*The strategy of using the City of Detroit as a primary place for gathering signatures was a bad idea. Pirich said Detroit has the lowest percentage of registered voters among municipalities in Michigan.

*He said the fact that so many Detroiters signed the petition - whether they were registered or not - reveals a couple of things. First, the labor unions "failed to educate the populace" about the true meaning of the petition, which was essentially anti-union and anti-fair wage in a city that's heavily union. 

Second, the petition backers hired signature gatherers, many of whom had out-of-state addresses, "and they get people to be aggressive, to be assertive, and to misrepresent what the petition is about. So they're repeatedly saying, 'this will help schools, or this will help health care in your community.'" And of course all it was intended to do was repeal prevailing wage and lower workers' wages.

*Beyond the multitudes of multiple signatures, unregistered voters and wrong addresses provided by individual petition signers, the same petition gatherers have provided a bounty of challenges all on their own. If the signature circulator isn't a Michigan resident, by law he or she had to check a box on the petition sheets they submit and provide their address. An improper signature, wrong address or unchecked box by the circulator can knock off as many as eight signatures on that page.

"This was perhaps the most exciting part of this challenge," Pirich said. "We found, first of all, a lot of these people were from out of state. California, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri. All over the place. (That's not illegal, but they do have to provide a proper address). They're professionals, they go around like vagabonds, they fill out their address forms. One of these guys from California, he puts his address as a particular hotel outside of Los Angeles. This particular hotel has been boarded up for the past three years. We have photographs of the chain link fence and the boards."

Pirich and his team sent three separate registered letters through the Postal Service to signature collectors at suspect addresses. Many came back unsigned, which is strong evidence that the circulator doesn't live there. He said a "Herculean effort" by volunteers from the trades and the state AFL-CIO helped by verifying signatures and doing other tasks.

"We have people who have used HUD house addresses, or land bank houses, that have been boarded up, there's no way a person could be a resident of those houses,"  Pirich said. "We also have people who put down hotels, motels, and shelters. So we're going to argue strenuously that that circulator should be disqualified."