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.
Opponents contend the constitutional measure, which would cover both public and private employees, would make union leaders more powerful than elected officials. Schuette says it would impose "breathtaking" rollbacks of state and local governments' ability to set employment terms and get budgets under control, wiping out some 170 laws and even invalidating other parts of the constitution.
Supporters say that is a dramatic overstatement. "It doesn't repeal a single law," said Dan Lijana, spokesman for Protect Working Families. He pointed to a state appeals court opinion saying the legislature would still maintain its lawmaking power.
No one knows what the proposed amendment's ripple effects would be, said Gary Francis, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who represents management clients in dealings with labor.
"It would be fought out on a case-by-case basis over a number of years," as contracts expired and lawsuits were filed, Francis said.
That hasn't stopped either side from offering its own interpretations. A pro-amendment ad features a firefighter wearing a special air pack. His voice muffled by a face mask, he explains that it's an example of gear that unions obtain through negotiations "to protect your lives and ours."
Opposition ads charge the amendment could prevent schools from firing employees with criminal records, limit use of background checks for school employees and abolish safety standards for school bus drivers.
Critics also say the initiative continues a trend toward cluttering state constitutions with policies that should be hashed out by legislatures and governors.
Given the high stakes, the union movement considers that a price worth paying.
"Labor is on the defensive," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Insitute, a liberal research and policy organization in Washington, D.C. "This could very well be a turning point if the people of Michigan affirm collective bargaining."