Labor tries new tactic after setbacks in Michigan
unions are working to protect collective bargaining power
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — It's hardly a return to the Depression era, when company guards roughed up labor organizers at auto plants. But times are tough for unions in the Rust Belt, even in a longtime bastion like Michigan. Here, emergency managers have been given the power to throw out union contracts in financially struggling cities. Neighboring Wisconsin has stripped public employees of collective bargaining rights and Indiana has approved "right-to-work" legislation.
Now, after a series of setbacks at the hands of Republican governors and legislatures, labor is attempting a bold gambit in hopes of regaining some momentum: a first-of-its-kind ballot initiative in the Nov. 6 election that would put collective bargaining rights in the Michigan constitution — and out of lawmakers' reach.
If successful, the strategy could serve as a model for other states, encouraging unions to bypass hostile officeholders and take their case directly to the voters. Twenty-one states allow citizens to vote on proposed laws and 18 permit their constitutions to be amended through referendums.
"We're working hard to get this passed. We're not going to leave any resources on the table because it could be a harbinger of things to come across the country," said John Armelagos, 57, a registered nurse in Ann Arbor and activist in the campaign for the initiative.
Although four other states guaranteed bargaining rights in their constitutions decades ago, none did so through a statewide ballot initiative. The initiative route has been used successfully by other interest groups for everything from banning gay marriage and affirmative action to guaranteeing hunting rights.
A labor coalition called Protect Working Families has poured about $6.5 million into television ads supporting the proposal, according to the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Two business-backed groups have spent a similar amount in opposition, while high-ranking Republicans — including Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette — are campaigning against the measure.
"It's now clear that unions are experimenting with a new weapon, a new tactic to undo results of elections they don't like," said Rich Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. "It's sour grapes from sore losers."
A poll last month showed the measure slightly ahead.
Labor has traditionally defended its interests by providing money and armies of volunteers to pro-labor candidates, usually Democrats. But its political success rate began dropping as unions and their treasuries declined with changes in the economy. Union-backed candidates suffered stinging setbacks in the 2010 election that produced a crop of Republican governors and GOP-controlled legislatures spoiling to cut budgets.
Michigan's recent labor battles haven't been as high-profile as in Wisconsin, where newly elected Gov. Scott Walker waged a frontal assault on public employee unions. Snyder, a businessman-turned-politician who took office at the same time, made clear he had no appetite for that approach in a state where more than 18 percent of the workforce is unionized.
But union leaders fear GOP lawmakers eventually will make a push for right-to-work legislation, which bars unions from collecting mandatory dues from workers. And they've grown increasingly disenchanted with Snyder — particularly over the law that allows the state-appointed emergency managers to void public employee labor contracts in debt-burdened cities and school districts. Snyder has signed other bills chipping away at union powers affecting benefits and school staffing.
"It would be foolish for us to sit on our hands and say, 'hey, let's wait until things get worse and then we'll mobilize," Armelagos said.