The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 16, 2012

Too-big-to-fail petition drive seeks a permanent end to anti-worker laws

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING – The organized labor community in Michigan has committed itself to a high-risk, high-reward strategy in an effort to enshrine collective bargaining rights for public and private workers into the state Constitution.

The labor coalition, called Protect Our Jobs, on March 6 kicked off the effort with an announcement at the Michigan Capitol Building of a drive to collect 322,609 petition signatures – the number needed to put pro-worker language permanently into the state constitution via the statewide Nov. 6 ballot. Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift said in order to provide a “cushion” against invalid signatures, the effort would seek to obtain about 500,000 voter signatures.

“This is an exciting opportunity for Michigan workers,” said Swift, who was addressing the Michigan Building Trades Council Legislative Conference in a hotel ballroom a few blocks from the state Capitol at about the same time the petition effort was being announced. “It's the way we can turn the tide. This is what we need to do next so that we don't have to play defense.”

Working people in Michigan have been playing defense over the past 15 months, since Republican lawmakers took control of the state House, Senate and governor's seat. No less than 91 bills containing anti-union, anti-worker legislation have been introduced by Republicans in Lansing.

“I do think that something needs to be done to halt the tidal wave of anti-worker legislation and protect workers’ rights in Michigan,” said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. “Nothing, nothing that Republicans have done in the Legislature over the past 15 months has been designed to help working families. Whether this petition effort is the answer remains to be seen. I do know, that with the magnitude of the effort this is going to take, organized labor in Michigan can’t lose this.”

A number of those GOP bills adopted last year and this year include shaving unemployment benefit weeks from 26 to 20 (making Michigan the first state in the nation to do so), outlawing local project labor agreements (a law which was struck down last month by a federal judge), and imposing severe limitations on access to workers compensation benefits and restrictions on care for injured workers.

An Emergency Financial Manager bill – seen as one of the worst on the list by organized labor –  allows the governor to appoint emergency financial managers in communities that are struggling financially. The EFM is allowed to displace locally elected leaders, abrogate union contracts at will, sell off municipally owned assets and generally do whatever he or she deems necessary to balance a budget.

Other bills that have been introduced would rescind the state’s prevailing wage law, eliminate MIOSHA, and prohibit collective bargaining terms in government contracts that involve the use of government grants, tax subsidies and abatements. In recent weeks, following the passage of a right-to-work law in neighboring Indiana, discussion has intensified in Michigan, with some Republican lawmakers bemoaning that the Hoosier State beat Michigan to the punch.

UAW President Bob King dropped a hint about the effort to change the state’s constitution after GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned in Michigan last month, where he ripped unions and their “bosses” and pledged support for right-to-work legislation. Right-to-work laws exist in 23 states and allow workers in a bargaining unit to enjoy the benefits of union-bargained raises and benefits, without having to pay union dues. Such workers are known as “free-riders.”

The petition signatures to change the Michigan constitution must be collected and submitted for state review by July 9. The first section of the petition language would amend the Michigan constitution as follows:

(1) “The people shall have the rights to organize together to form, join or assist labor organizations, and to bargain collectively with a public or private employer through an exclusive representative of the employees' choosing, to the fullest extent not preempted by the laws of the United States.” Five other sections follow, and they can be found at

Swift made it clear that the lawyers have carefully prepared the language, adding that “the beauty” of this proposed constitutional amendment is that it “turns back the clock and makes unenforceable the bad laws that were passed in previous sessions,” while preventing anti-worker laws in the future.

“What this does is it enshrines collective bargaining in the constitution and it gives protections to middle-class families and people around the state from those attacks,” said Todd Cook of We Are the People, a coalition supported by labor unions.

There is a major potential pitfall in this petition drive that will seek to end, in one fell swoop, right-to-work and other anti-worker legislation in Michigan. Labor only gets one shot, and it better hit the target. Not getting sufficient signatures to place the issue on the ballot, or losing the vote on Nov. 6, could be expected to embolden any fence-sitting state Republicans to adopt a RTW law in Michigan – and perhaps elsewhere.  “If we lose in this effort in Michigan it will have implications for labor in the rest of the country,” said Operating Engineers Local 324 Political Director Lisa Canada. “We have to win this.”

Rick Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, was invited to the building trades conference and addressed the petition issue. He said the chamber has not taken a position on RTW in Michigan, because “there is no consensus in the business community” for or against it.

“We agree with Gov. Snyder that right-to-work is a divisive issue and is not on our agenda,” Studley said. “But be careful of the law of unintended consequences of pushing a divisive, anti-business ballot proposal. It’s a mistake to think that the business community is going to sit on its hands.” Whether this petition drive constitutes an “anti-business” proposal is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

The advantages of staging the petition effort during this presidential election year are obvious. An energized bloc of voters would presumably also be motivated to vote up and down the ballot for candidates who are more friendly to working people. In Michigan this year, labor’s only chance to get a friendly majority in the Legislature is in the state House. “If we don't get the House back,” said Michigan House Minority Leader Richard Hammel (D-48th District), “you will see a Republican movement that's even more energized to do whatever they want.”

If history is any guide, what happened in Ohio last year could be good news to the labor movement this year in Michigan. Seeking to overturn the state's GOP-backed law restricting the collective-bargaining power of public employees, a union-backed effort in the Buckeye State collected nearly 1.3 million signatures –  five times the number needed – to put the law before voters. In the November election, voters rebuked the law with a union-friendly 61-39 margin.

As Studley pointed out, Gov. Snyder has said he has no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation (although he has signed every other piece of anti-worker legislation that has come across his desk). Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) has expressed skepticism about the GOP having the votes to adopt a RTW law, but similarly, he hasn't stopped any anti-worker legislation, either.

Former state GOP House Speaker Rick Johnson, now a lobbyist for the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, offered this pearl of wisdom to the delegates: “My advice is to make sure you make this work.”