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.
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.