In Michigan, a High-Stakes Game for Labor

Sixth in a series on the 174 ballot measures going before voters on November 6.

There's no question these are tough times for the American labor movement. In the Rust Belt, where unions once reigned, we've watched as Wisconsin's anti-labor governor handily won a recall effort and as Indiana became the first Midwestern state to embrace so-called "right to work" laws, which cripple unions by prohibiting mandatory membership and automatic dues-collection from non-members who are benefitting from a unionized industry. To quote Harold Meyerson's blockbuster Prospect feature on labor's past and future, "In much of America, unions have already disappeared. In the rest of America, they’re battling for their lives."

Now in Michigan, a state where unions once wielded tremendous power, the battle for labor's survival has moved to the ballot. Several measures could bolster unions' strength in the state—or weaken it. One measure provides more protections and bargaining rights for home health-care workers; another repeals the state's controversial "emergency manager" laws, which (among other things) allow cities in bad fiscal shape to forgo their collectively bargained agreements.

Most important, however, is a constitutional amendment known as Proposal 2. The measure would make collective bargaining a constitutional right in the state. While there’s still significant debate about what that would mean practically, the measure would almost certainly protect public sector unions from the anti-bargaining laws passed in Wisconsin, and would likely make it hard to pass “right to work" legislation like Indiana’s.

If Prop 2 succeeds, it could deliver a much-needed shot in the arm to a flailing movement—not just in Michigan, but across the country. If it fails, however, it would embolden the Republican legislature to take aim at labor rights. “A no vote will allow further attacks on collective bargaining that are almost certain to come from this legislature in the lame-duck session," says Dan Lijama, spokesperson for Protect Working Families, the group that got the measure on the ballot.

The outcome is anything but certain. A September 4 poll from Public Policy Polling showed the measure leading, 44 to 37.

Not surprisingly, the amendment has gotten quite a bit of attention from donors. In the last filings, Protect Working Families reported more than $8 million in contributions. Opponents had raised little at the time, but since have spent or reserved millions for television advertising. Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks spending in the state's elections, told the Detroit News that the opposition could easily wind up spending $25 million, while the unions will likely have to raise up to $15 million more if they hope to be successful.

Opponents have gone into hyper-drive, painting such a terrifying portrait of what would happen if this amendment passes that you’re left wondering how collective bargaining hasn’t been made a felony itself. Republican Governor Rick Snyder has said the proposal would be “devastating to the reinvention of Michigan"—“a giant step backward in time” that would undo all the economic progress the state has made since its bleakest days during the auto-industry crisis. Snyder has also warned that credit-rating companies are concerned about the measure’s implications for fiscal health. Ratcheting it up a notch, other opponents have argued the amendment would invalidate the workplace standards already in effect—the ones that ensure basic safety or keep pedophiles from teaching in public schools. In other words: If the measure passes, a drug addict could drive your public bus while your kindergartener is taught by a sex offender.

Not surprisingly, proponents say that's ridiculous. "This idea that collective bargaining somehow trumps state statutes or federal laws is absolutely ridiculous," says Dan Lijama, spokesperson for Protect Working Families. "The amendment is very simple. All it does is protect the right to collective bargaining and put that in the [state] constitution." It would also prevent communities from dealing with budget cuts by breaking collectively bargained contracts so they can lay off police, firefighters, teachers, and other unionized workers.

The measure won't benefit all of Michigan's workers—at least not directly. The measure is largely written to protect public-sector unions. That makes sense, because private-sector unions follow federal, not state, rules. The National Labor Relations Act specifically says that federal law supersedes state law when it comes to private-sector unions. (Right-to-work laws are only allowed because of a specific provision in a later measure, the Taft-Hartley Act.) Most of the Michigan measure would help fortify the position of public-employee unions. 

While that means the direct scope of the measure would be limited, Lijama and other advocates say the higher workplace standards for public employees would likely raise the overall level of worker protection. If state and city governments can’t arbitrarily toss out previously bargained agreements, private businesses might be more inclined to keep their word to employers as well. And with more firefighters and police employed, some say small businesses might even see a boost to business.

But even if Prop 2 passes, opponents won't give up. Nelson Lichetenstein, a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara, says the measure will likely head toward litigation almost immediately, and courts have been less and less friendly to organized labor. "The courts are still there and they have this incredible layer after layer of rulings which give tremendous privileged status to employers," he says.

Lichtenstein argues the measure is significant not for its practical implications, but for the message that would be conveyed by its passage. "This is all highly symbolic," he says, "but when it comes to sentiment about unions, that is important.

Winning a popular vote for collective bargaining, proponents say, will make lawmakers will see how important such rights are to Michiganders. Something similar happened last November in Ohio, when voters overturned a law that limited collective bargaining for public employees. After unions showed some muscle—and overwhelming popular support—the state legislature has been hesitant to go after them again.

Proposal 2 is a high-stakes game for labor supporters. If Michigan, the home of labor, can't muster support for collective bargaining, it will deal a major blow to a labor movement that's already gasping.



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