The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 07, 2011

State Republicans have plenty of ammo to reload, re-aim at organized labor

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING – Last November , Michigan’s voters handed Republicans control over every lever of power in the state, including the House, the Senate, the governor’s office, and the state Supreme Court.

With the Tea Party pushing much of the entire Republican Party far to the right, organized labor leaders in Michigan could see it wouldn’t be long before worker- and union-friendly laws and regulations became targets for elimination under the guise of saving money or making Michigan more business-friendly.

As we’ve pointed out throughout this year, 40-plus pieces of legislation in that realm have been introduced, and with only rallies, legislative lobbying and letters to the editor as weapons, to no one’s surprise, little has stopped or even slowed the anti-worker Republican bulldozer.

One of the latest attacks has been dubbed “right to teach,” with Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville signaling his support for a right-to-work law specifically aimed at teachers.

“There’s still a lot of momentum for that, specifically against the MEA (Michigan Education Association),” said Todd Tennis, a lobbyist for Capitol Services working on behalf of the IBEW in Michigan. “But people have to realize that it wouldn’t take much for the Republicans to take that effort to the private sector, and we need to stand with the teachers. I’m hoping that wiser heads will prevail and that the Republicans will step back a bit on this.”

Tennis said it’s still too soon to say whether a larger right-to-work bill will be taken up before the end of this year. “Some of the proponents are saying they need to act on it right now, so we’ll see,” he said.

Here are some of examples of what has been adopted, and what’s likely waiting in the legislative hopper for the fall. For organized labor, it ain’t pretty.

*Preventing PLAs from being enacted by local governments. It’s the most recent anti-building trades action taken by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who signed Senate Public Act 165 into law on July 19. It took away the right of local units of government to enter into construction project labor agreements. The anti-PLA legislation was adopted along party lines in both the House and Senate.

The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council is fighting the new law in federal court.

PLAs are voluntary agreements used to establish the terms and conditions of employment on construction projects that all contractors bidding on the project must abide by. They have been successful in both the public and private sector in Michigan and across the country for decades.

“Once again, Republican leaders have put their personal interests ahead of the best interests of our workers,” said State Rep. Charles Smiley (D-Burton). “PLAs protect our workers – they protect their jobs by making sure contractors hire Michigan workers, protect their rights and protect their safety while on the job. Yet by passing this legislation, House Republicans are removing the very foundation that strengthens PLAs and allows them to support our workers and their families.”

Prevailing wage repeal. This one is of immediate interest to building trades union workers in Michigan. There are no less than four bills in place that would repeal all or part of the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965, and would eliminate baseline or “prevailing” wage requirements for construction projects in the state.

The effect? Think immediate pay cuts for construction workers on state-funded projects. Out-of-state contractors bringing in low-wage workforces to under-bid local contractors on local jobs. Less money in the state’s economy; more floating elsewhere with workers sending wages back to their home state – or home country.

Right to work, better known as the elephant in the living room. At least one newly formed group, “Michigan Freedom to Work,” is pushing an all-out right-to-work law for in Michigan.

Senate Bills 116 and 120 would create right-to-work zones in Michigan, allowing local units of government to implement RTW laws. Right-to-work allows a worker to enjoy the benefits of union membership, without having to pay union dues. Such “free riders” in 22 states where right-to-work exists usually effectively cut into union clout, leading to lower wages, benefits and safety standards.

And as we indicated, teachers, especially in the Michigan Education Association, have specifically been targeted for “right to teach” by Republicans, likely because they perceive the MEA is behind recalls of a number of GOP lawmakers.

*Permanent reduction of unemployment benefits compensation weeks from 26 to 20. Michigan was the first state to pave a mile of road and put a center stripe down the middle of highways – and now we’re the first state in U.S. history to reduce unemployment benefit levels.

“It’s a sad day when Michigan, hardest hit by unemployment over the last decade, becomes the first state in the nation to provide less of a lifeline for people out of work through no fault of their own,” said state State Rep. Jim Ananich  (D-Flint) when the bill become law in March. “Instead of focusing on helping people get back to work, the bill passed by Republicans in the Legislature and signed by Gov. Snyder will hurt our local businesses and force more families to leave Michigan just to survive.”

Passage of the Emergency Financial Manager bill. A July 21 EPIC/MRA poll found that 53 percent of Lower Peninsula voters and 60 percent of U.P. voters would reject the state’s emergency financial manager (EFM) bill if given the chance.

The EFM law, adopted in March, essentially allows the use of dictators in financially troubled communities and school districts.

The “Local Government and School District Financial Accountability Act” extends the powers of appointed Emergency Financial Managers to institute fiscal reform of local and municipal government. A good part of that translates into eliminating union contracts. The law went into effect May 1. Benton Harbor has an EFM, who suspended the decision-making powers of the city commission, giving those powers to…himself.

The Detroit Public Schools also have an EFM – and they also have an existing labor contract for teachers and administrators. On July 29, that EFM disregarded terms of the union contracts, as they could do under the new state law, and implemented a district-wide 10 percent pay cut on the entire workforce.

Public Act 38, the notorious tax shift approved by state Republicans, eliminates the Michigan Business Tax and basically shifts $1.8 billion from the business community onto Michigan’s taxpayers in order to make Michigan more attractive to new businesses.

Gongwer News reported on a handful of anti-union initiatives introduced late last month.

Under House Bill 4052, public employees found to have used their work e-mail for a political activity could face a year in jail. The legislation would prohibit any public employee or union from using public property and services for any political activities, including fundraising and campaigning for a union office, as well as collective bargaining activities and soliciting employees to join a union.

House Bill 5023 would impose a fine on public employees equal to a day’s pay for each day the employee strikes. The bargaining representative of the public employee would be fined $5,000 per day for each day the employee strikes. The money would be automatically deducted from the employee’s pay and directed to the state general fund.

On the other hand, House Bill 5025 would require written consent of an employee to have his or her employer deduct union dues from wages. “Too many folks look at their take home pay and that’s all they ever look at, they don’t think about what else they are paying for,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Earl Poleski (R-Jackson) to Gongwer. The anti-union proposal is an ironic stance for a Republican lawmaker these days: inserting a government regulation to make sure people know how to handle their finances.

House Bill 5024 would require picketers to not obstruct the entrance to a place of employment or roadways. The bill would also prohibit the picketing of a private residence by any means.

House Bill 5026, is an effort to make it easier for employers to find scabs, by no longer requiring job advertisements to state that the jobs sought are to replace those workers involved in a dispute.

Further reductions in unemployment benefits. Separate bills in the House and Senate could reduce state jobless benefits by an additional 12 percent. According to the state AFL-CIO, benefits would be cut for workers earning less than $40,000.

Furthermore, the state federation said workers who earn “unevenly distributed wages,” could be impacted because new proposed benefit calculations would use a 52-week average rather than actual earnings during times of full employment (the high quarter). Such a change, along with the reduction in benefit weeks, could reduce jobless benefits by a third.