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Published: Friday, 3/9/2012

Michigan unions mobilize to protect bargaining rights

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

LANSING, Mich. -- For the past year, labor unions in Michigan have faced a state government that is more unfriendly than at any other time since the New Deal. They've watched a solidly Republican Legislature pass bill after bill chipping away at union strength.

This week, Michigan lawmakers passed a law that prohibits school districts from deducting union dues. They passed another law designed to prevent graduate student research assistants from unionizing.

Last year, another tough new bill gave appointed emergency managers the right to dissolve or change collective-bargaining contracts as they see fit. Increasingly -- and despite Gov. Rick Snyder's opposition -- GOP legislators are talking about trying to make Michigan a "right to work" state that would ban the union shop.

Now, finally, unions are striking back -- in a way that has stunned even some of their supporters. This week, a coalition of the state's largest unions announced a major drive for a state constitutional amendment that would protect collective bargaining.

The coalition is determined to get the measure on the November ballot. If it passes, it could be the biggest victory for labor in decades.

"We want to get this state back to what has been our normal way of doing business since the 1930s: collective bargaining," said one of the state labor movement's elder statesmen, who didn't want to be identified lest he steal the thunder of those who are leading the movement today.

There had been rumors that labor might try to place an amendment on the ballot designed to prevent lawmakers from adopting right-to-work legislation. But the unions are going for something far beyond that.

Todd Cook, the head of the umbrella labor organization called We the People, said the proposed amendment would forbid right-to-work laws and a lot more. "It would provide protection against all attacks on collective bargaining," he said at a news conference this week.

The proposed amendment says: "The Legislature's exercise of its power to enact laws relative to the hours and conditions of employment shall not abridge, impair, or limit the right to collectively bargain for wages, hours, and other terms of employment that exceed minimum levels established by the Legislature."

Nothing, in other words, could prevent collective bargaining or throw out contracts collectively arrived at, no matter what.

The amendment also protects the right to bargain collectively for state and other government employees.

The proposal is seen as virtually certain to get the 322,609 valid signatures needed to get on the ballot, because most or all Michigan labor unions have pledged to help collect them.

Should that happen, and should this amendment be approved by a majority of voters in November, it would apparently nullify several major pieces of Snyder-era legislation.

The sweeping powers the state's emergency managers now have to ignore union contracts would end. The law outlawing unions for university graduate students would be null and void. Laws aimed at weakening teacher unions would likely be invalid.

Zack Pohl, We the People's spokesman, said unions were willing to spend what they need to spend to get the amendment certified for the ballot and then passed, though he wouldn't discuss how much. He added that "we fully expect we'll have lots of enemies" who will spend heavily to try to get voters to defeat the amendment.

It wouldn't be surprising if Governor Snyder is partly blaming his fellow Republicans in the Legislature for bringing this on themselves. He has steadfastly opposed efforts to make Michigan a right-to-work state, saying they are an unnecessary distraction.

Yet lawmakers have been so gleefully eager to sock it to unions that they paid no attention. Opponents of the amendment could sue, saying the proposed language is too broad to be legal because it changes two different sections of the state constitution.

But union sources indicated they'd discussed that prospect with their attorneys and feel they are on solid ground.

The labor elder statesman was heartened by the proposal and by labor fighting back. "Collective bargaining is so important to the citizens of Michigan," he said. "It's what made us a middle-class society. You know, we've worked with Republicans as well as Democrats.

"[Former Gov. John] Engler believed in collective bargaining. Mitt Romney's father, George, signed legislation giving public employees the right to bargain. It's only this stupid, mean-spirited bunch who are making an assault on our way of life," he said.

David Hecker, the leader of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said that when the Legislature passed the law preventing school districts from deducting union dues, "it could not have been a worse day."

"But you know what?" he said in an email to his membership. "Things turned around when I went into our board room and saw staff taking petitions out to be signed. We will win, because for our children and communities we have no other choice."

Labor has a lot at stake here. If the amendment fails, it could be a fatal blow to Michigan's union movement.

But kicking even a shrinking hornet's nest is often a bad idea. If this amendment succeeds, the anti-union forces in Michigan's Legislature are likely to find out why in a forceful way.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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