The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, January 12, 2018

Trades rally, sign up to support prevailing wage

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - There are a lot of moving parts in the effort to sustain a prevailing wage law in Michigan.

1. Labor union members were slated to rally at the steps of the State Capitol Building on Dec. 13 in support of the state's prevailing wage law. That was set to happen after we went to press.

2. Across Michigan, volunteers have been distributing a petition that would enact a new prevailing wage law, the Construction Workers Fair Wage Act. 

3. On Dec. 29, the union-backed Protect Michigan Jobs issued a formal challenge with the state's Bureau of Elections, declaring that, in an initial sampling, there are an insufficient number of valid signatures (about 43 percent invalid) for the approval a prevailing wage repeal petition effort backed by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan.

4. At press time, the Michigan Bureau of Elections was reviewing those same petition signatures, and perhaps a greater sampling, to see if it agrees with the results of the signature examiners hired by Protect Michigan Jobs and the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.

The whole process could play out the way it did in 2015, when the entire prevailing wage repeal petition effort by the ABC and their front group, Protect Michigan Taxpayers, was voided. Then, a deep dive into the signatures revealed that some 43 percent of the names were invalid because of the presence of duplicate or unregistered voters signing.

"The initial numbers we're seeing of invalid petition signatures is encouraging, but it's too early to tell how this is all going to shake out," said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. "But this effort taken on by ABC and their big-money backers to eliminate a popular law like prevailing wage, and thus lower construction worker wages, just shows how out of touch they are with the voters of Michigan. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) is selling this as a citizens' initiative, but the citizens don't want anything to do with lower wages for construction workers, who do very skilled and difficult work."

The ABC/Protect Michigan Taxpayers group late last year submitted to the Bureau of Elections 379,903 signatures from a 2017 statewide petition drive intended to repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965. Based on a state law involving the percentage of voters in the most recent statewide election, among them they need 252,523 valid signatures. If they do reach that number, the prevailing wage repeal question goes before the state Legislature, which votes on the petition language. If majorities in both the state House and Senate vote to repeal the law, it is repealed. If lawmakers don't have enough votes to repeal in either chamber, the matter is placed before Michigan voters on this year's Nov. 6 statewide ballot. 

But PMT may not have enough signatures - again. In the challenge to the Protect Michigan Taxpayers petition, Protect Michigan Jobs/Michigan Building Trades attorney John Pirich wrote in a brief to the Board of State Canvassers that since the "petitioner has not filed the constitutionally required number of valid signatures, certification must be denied, or at a minimum, a larger sample must be pulled."

He added: "The issue before this Board is quite simple: does the Protecting Michigan Taxpayers initiative petition satisfy the mandatory constitutional and statutory prerequisites for certification? Given that the signatures submitted by the petitioner are, as a mater of uncontroverted fact, lower than the threshold for certification, the only possible answer to that question in 'no.' " 

A typical state Bureau of Elections random sampling of 535 signatures was pulled for inspection by Pirich's team on Dec. 6. Breaking down the percentages, at least 373 of those names must be valid for the petitions to be certified. A "gray area" for the Bureau is between 340-372 signatures, necessitating the examination of a larger sample of signatures.  Pirich's team and the union-backed Protect Michigan Jobs estimate that the total number of valid signatures at only 303 - an invalid rate of 43.4 percent, similar to the final sampling count of the failed 2015 petition drive. The sample size is relatively small, but to extrapolate, the 43.4 percent rate would translate into 215,025 signatures - 37,498 names short of the state's minimum. The inch-thick challenge document by Pirich, which included the copies of petition sheets, found scores of duplicate names and unregistered voters. 

PMT spokesman Jeff Wiggins said in a statement to the news service MIRS that "we firmly believe both the challenge and their supposed petition drive are bogus, and are 100 percent confident the voices of over 380,000 Michigan citizens will be successful in sending this proposal to the Michigan Legislature."

Simultaneous with the validation of the ABC/Protect Michigan Taxpayers petition signatures, the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and Protect Michigan Jobs have launched their own petition drive to sustain prevailing wage. To re-state, if the ABC/PMT petition does get validated, and is approved by the state Legislature, then the 1965 law is repealed. Prevailing wage could be reinstated, however, with the successful gathering of a like amount of valid signatures this year to put the prevailing wage question before the state Legislature, and if that fails, on the statewide ballot on Nov. 6. That ties in with the theme of the Dec. 13 prevailing wage rally: "Let the People Decide."

But the signature gathering has to be done in a hurry and in the colder months - the 180-day window for soliciting names has already started. This effort is an attempt to create a new law, the Construction Workers Fair Wage Act, which would be slightly different than the existing state prevailing wage law.  A $1 million appropriation would enshrine the law in the state Constitution. If the ABC/PMT effort fails again because of faulty signatures, then the Protect Michigan Jobs petition effort will be reevaluated to determine if it should continue.