Kicking a Hornet's Nest

By on March 8th, 2012

Columns
Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Kicking a Hornet’s Nest

March 9, 2012
LANSING, Mich. – For the last year, labor unions in Michigan have faced a more unfriendly state government than at any time since the New Deal began. They’ve watched as a solidly Republican legislature passed bill after bill chipping away at union strength.
This week, lawmakers passed a law forbidding school districts to deduct union dues. They passed another 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 saw 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, the 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 sweeping state constitutional amendment to protect collective bargaining.
They are determined to get it on the November ballot. If they do so and 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.
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 instead, they are going for something far beyond that. Todd Cook, the head of a umbrella labor organization called We the People, said the proposed amendment would indeed forbid right-to-work laws – but also do a lot more. “It would provide protection against all attacks on collective bargaining,“ Cook told a news conference Tuesday.
That, it indeed would do. 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 equally protects the right to bargain collectively for state and other government employees.
The proposal is almost certain to get the 322,609 valid signatures needed to get on the ballot as 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 the citizens voting in November, it would apparently nullify several major pieces of Snyder-era legislation.
For example, the sweeping powers emergency managers now have to ignore union contracts would end. The law outlawing unions for university graduate students would be null and void. And laws aimed at weakening teacher unions would likely be invalid.
Zack Pohl, the spokesman for We the People, said the unions were willing to spend what it needed to get the amendment certified for the ballot and then passed, though he wouldn’t discuss how much. He added “We fully expect we’ll have lots of enemies,” who will spend heavily to try to get the public to defeat the amendment.
What will ultimately happen is anyone’s guess.
But it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if Gov. 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 that was an unnecessary distraction.
Yet they were so gleefully eager to sock it to the unions they paid no attention. Opponents of the amendment could sue, saying that the proposed language is too broad to be legal since it changes two different sections of the state constitution.
But union sources indicated they’d discussed that with their attorneys and feel they are on solid ground.
One elder labor leader, who didn’t want to be identified lest he steal the thunder of those leading the movement today, indicated he was heartened by the proposal, by labor fighting back.
“Collective bargaining is so important to the citizens of Michigan. It’s what made us a middle-class society. You know, we’ve worked with Republicans as well as Democrats,” he mused.
“(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.”
“For months we’ve been talking about what we can do about it,” he said. “Now”, he added, “labor has figured it out.”
David Hecker, the leader of AFT Michigan, said on Wednesday, when the legislature passed a law preventing school districts from deducting union dues, “it could not have been a worse day.”
“But you know what? 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,” he said in an e-mail to his membership.
Labor has a lot at stake here. If the amendment fails, it could be a fatal blow to the union movement as we’ve known it.
But kicking even a shrinking hornet’s nest is often a bad idea. If this amendment succeeds, those anti-union forces in Michigan’s legislature are likely to find out why in a very forceful way.
Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a  consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.

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Anagnorisis
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Anagnorisis

Admonition against crossing a picket line was integral to most of our upbringing, indeed as referenced in this article a mainspring of the rise of the middle class, namely workers becoming able to buy the products they made, send their kids to college, kids who then rebelled against bourgeois values. So it goes. I’m gratified to witness the unions continuing their heritage even if some workers are against it, which is pretty much the American Way as we have known it.

James Brazier
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James Brazier

I can think of only one group of employees guaranteed collective bargaining, state troopers. The proposal to protect all exercises of collective bargaining from acts of the legislature seems to cover all employees, private or public sector. It does raise the question of whether classified state employees will be covered. Although, Aticle IV, Section48 appears to have already exempted those in the state classified civil service from legislative enactment of laws. There is still the potential problem of the Civil Service Commission changing collective bargaining rights for classified state employees by adopting rule banning mandatory membership or the mandatory payment… Read more »

harvey bronstein
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harvey bronstein

I can’t wait to sign and support this. The unions made the middle class in Michigan, but the GOP wants only rich and poor.

Randy Bishop
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Sorry Jack,…but you have it exactly BACKWARDS. 1st, population in Wayne County is down, union membership is down, and the People in the State of Michigan, (based on a very recent poll) by a majority support Michigan becoming a Right to Work State. We are soooooo pleased that the UAW is doing this over-reaching ballot initiative,…it will get out the vote for the REPUBLICANS IN MICHIGAN,…with Libertarians, Independents, TEA Party and Moderates that want to “TRULY RE-INVENT MICHIGAN, ONCE AND FOREVER”,…and make Michigan able to compete with the other RTW states that have taken our manufacturing jobs and our youth… Read more »

Michael Burns
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Michael Burns

Big Labor’s amendment proposal forces the issue as it should. Governor Snyder should have taken right to work up early on. Fortunately most Michigan voters know that unfettered labor power will desimate the remaining value the state has to business. That giving the business of organized labor, with its direct economic support of the state’s political system in Michigan even more control over politicians in this state, will lead inexoribly to the state’s fiscal ruin.
Vote this twisted amendment down and move on to right to work.

Robert Geake
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Robert Geake

Does anyone happen to know whether or not any other states have such an amendment in their constitutions?

David Waymire
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David Waymire

Ok, back to basics. Right to work states are poor, and today they have high unemployment. I guess we just want to be more like Mississippi…the poorest state in the nation, and a right to work state, with high unemployment…and less like, say, Massachusetts, a state with high per cap income, low unemployment…and no right to work. Facts are troubling things.

Michael Burns
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Michael Burns

Right. Basics. Let’s move off organized labor’s playbook and understand that right to work states are not poor because they are right to work states. They have less per capita income due to the fact many did not have and do not have a developed economy. YET. Further those right to work states will be kicking our state’s nomic buts in short order. Business,industry and savy workers will move where they have the most opportunity to manage their businesses adn careers without third parties leaching off of them.

larold
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larold

This ballot proposal isn’t about any of these things. It’s about the Republican hegemony in Lansing and the resultant extremism that Snyder has failed to moderate. The governor calls himself a moderate yet he goes along with every cockamamie idea the Republicans put forth to punish and diminish unions. The final straw was disallowing schools to deduct union dues for the MEA. Not one other business or organization was affected, and not one other union was affected. This was purely political and Snyder should have vetoed it. When this kind of extremism is the norm in a political capitol, and… Read more »

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