LANSING – The Michigan Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Sept. 5 that the language in the Protect Our Jobs ballot proposal passes legal barriers and cleared it for inclusion on the Nov. 6 statewide ballot.
For organized labor in Michigan, it’s a tremendously important and somewhat unlikely decision by the state’s Supreme Court, which is comprised of a conservative majority that has traditionally made rulings in lockstep with the state’s Republican lawmakers and the big business community, who vehemently oppose Protect Our Jobs.
“Today, the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously rejected a challenge from corporate special interests to block a vote on a proposal that preserves collective bargaining for working families,” said a statement from Protect Our Jobs, aka Protect Working Families. “Corporate special interests pushed Lansing politicians to pressure the court leading up to today’s decision. But there was no legal reason to deny people the opportunity to vote on the proposal.”
Since March, unions in Michigan have undertaken a campaign to gather petition signatures to place the Protect Our Jobs/Protect Working Families issue on the statewide ballot in November . Close to 700,000 signatures were gathered, nearly double the amount needed to place the issue on the ballot.
The ballot proposal would enshrine various rights in the state constitution, including the right to form, join or assist unions in the effort to collectively bargain, while prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees from exercising those rights, and prohibit the government from interfering with union rights. Passage would also prevent Republican lawmakers from making Michigan a right-to-work state, and repeal other anti-labor laws that have been adopted over the past 20 months. The full impact of the ballot proposal can be found at www.protectworkingfamilies.com.
Much happened in August that put the future of the ballot proposal in doubt. First, an opinion was released by Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette that the ballot proposal contained too many “Trojan horse-style” elements that would affect state laws in unknown ways. Then, the four-member state Board of Canvassers, comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans, failed to gain a Republican vote in order to place the issue on the ballot. An appeal by Protect Our Jobs supporters to a state Court of Appeals panel resulted in a decision to place the issue on the ballot, and the state Supreme Court agreed.
We Are the People, Michigan, a worker advocacy group supporting the ballot initiative, hailed the court’s decision. “The Supreme Court made the right call today,” said Director Todd Cook. “When nearly 700,000 citizens sign a petition, we have a right to be heard and to make our case to the voters.”
The state Board of Canvassers was expected to take direction from the Supreme Court and formally place the issue on the ballot.
“I’m thrilled that the people who signed the petition to place the issue on the ballot will have their voices heard in November ,” said Todd Tennis, a Lansing lobbyist for the IBEW. “But the pressure is on to rally our own people, and explain it to people who don’t understand labor issues. This is the most important issue facing organized labor in Michigan, likely since the 1930s. The other side said that this is a reach for something that organized labor doesn’t have, but that’s not the case. This will serve to defend the rights that workers have, and serve as a preventative measure against efforts to undermine those rights.”
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have basically threatened to go a virtual war in the public airwaves to stop the Protect Our Jobs proposal. The Chamber said the proposal was “deliberately misleading.” Said chamber CEO Richard Studley: “ The Michigan Chamber will continue to fight against the union bosses and out-of-state special interest groups who want to hijack the state constitution. We are optimistic voters will do the right thing on Nov. 6 by saying ‘hands off our Constitution.’ ”
Millions of dollars of corporate money is expected to be spent in Michigan to defeat the ballot proposal in an effort to match organized labor’s “boots on the ground” approach to getting Protect Our Jobs approved by voters. “While we are disappointed with the court’s decision to allow a purposefully misleading and job killing proposal on the ballot, we are fully prepared and will work each and every day between now and Nov. 6 to inform Michigan families about the real purpose behind this deceptive proposal.” said Stu Sandler, consultant for a group called Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution.
Following the unsuccessful recall attempt against Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year, Michigan now becomes the latest barometer for what will be seen as the power or decline of organized labor.
“I don’t think we can emphasize too strongly how important this ballot issue is going to be,” said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin. “We are really going to have to reach out to our members, and urge them to reach out to their family and neighbors to vote yes on Protect Our Jobs. If this goes down at the polls, the Republican Party is going to be emboldened to attack organized labor even more.”