Michigan battleground: Unions push to protect rights at the ballot box

A Michigan appeals court Wednesday considers the proposed 'Protect Our Jobs' measure, which would preserve collective bargaining rights. Unions want to get it onto the Nov. 6 ballot – and into the state constitution.

By , Staff writer

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    A voter marks her primary ballot at the Bowen Center in Pontiac, Mich., on Aug. 7, 2012. Unions aim to get a measure on the ballot in November that will protect collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.
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The clock is ticking in Michigan for a union-backed ballot initiative that would change the state constitution to ensure the collective bargaining rights of public and private workers. A state appeals court takes up the matter Wednesday, and both sides say they are prepared to carry the fight all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court

A four-person Board of State canvassers tasked with approving ballot language has already deadlocked on the issue, along party lines. Wednesday's hearing in an appeals court in Lansing, Mich., marks the next phase of a standoff between some of the state’s most powerful labor organizations and GOP Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who says the ballot measure is too broad and, if approved by voters, could nullify more than 170 state laws now affecting unions.

The final decision must be rendered by Aug. 27, the deadline to finalize the Nov. 6 ballot.

Recommended: What Wisconsin says about labor unions' clout in America

Since the 2010 election, unions have struggled under new Republican majorities in Midwestern states that have pushed for legislation to curb the rights of public-sector workers in the name of closing gaping budget deficits and attracting new businesses. Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio passed legislation curbing union rights, and Michigan has required its public workers to pay more of their health and retirement costs. While Ohio voters later overturned GOP Gov. John Kasich's signature law rolling back collective bargaining rights for public workers, Wisconsin voters backed Gov. Scott Walker, who survived an epic recall vote in June, organized by unions.

As the battle shifts to Michigan, labor unions have already committed $8 million to the bid to shield their collective bargaining power from further legislative rollbacks, known as "Protect Our Jobs."

The ballot effort is a “preemptive strike” by unions to make sure that “Wisconsin and Ohio don’t come to Michigan,” says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. 

“Unions are seeing that they have to get this into the legislation while they can, because things can get a lot worse,” he says, citing the protracted court battles and advocacy spending on both sides in other Midwest states. “They want to inoculate themselves from further harm and are trying to frame [union rights] in such a way [that] it becomes very difficult for their political opponent to fight it.”

Besides enshrining collective bargaining rights in the Michigan constitution, the initiative will also forbid future legislative attempts to make Michigan a “right to work” state. “Right to work” laws, now in effect in 23 states, prevent unions from requiring nonunion workers to pay membership dues for representation, which supporters say creates a friendlier business climate that encourages job creation. Opponents say it's a veiled way to cripple union power.

The union coalition backing the proposal says it collected more than 700,000 signatures to qualify it for the ballot, more than double the required amount. Among the unions in support of the measure are the Michigan Nurses Association, the Michigan chapters of the AFL-CIO, and the United Auto Workers.

Michigan State Attorney Bill Schuette argues that the ballot measure, as proposed, fails to pass constitutional muster because its many components cannot be summarized in the 100-word statement legally required to appear on an election ballot.

In his brief filed to the Board of Canvassers, Attorney General Schuette says the ballot supporters “cannot … propose an innocuous-sounding constitutional amendment that has the secret effect of wholesale changes in Michigan law” and that voters will not be “given the basic tools … essential to know precisely what the citizens are voting for.”

He says the ballot initiative, if approved, would have the power of voiding, or limiting, a broad spectrum of existing powers in the executive and legislative branch and in the courts, such as the ability of state universities to control expenditures and the governor’s ability to propose a budget or reduce spending.

The 100-word description legally required by the election process does not allow a full assessment of any ballot proposal, says Jocelyn Benson, director of the Michigan Center for Election Law at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit.

“To take the attorney general’s argument that the 100 words must fully describe all the implications of the legal changes … sets the bar so high it could violate First Amendment concerns or protections for citizens who want to use the ballot process to achieve change,” says Ms. Benson.

She views the legal challenges from both sides as politicized, which she says burdens the court system and ultimately wastes money that could be used to advocate letting voters decide. “Every dollar spent in court ironically could be spent educating voters of this initiative,” she says.

“This is more of a policy or political argument than a standup legal argument. It is only illustrated by the fact that both briefs include a lot of irrelevant information about policy and substance of the proposal,” she says. “The debate should only be about procedure and should be more objective than the debate actually is.”

Recommended: What Wisconsin says about labor unions' clout in America
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