Unions aim to lock collective bargaining into state constitutions

Union officials are campaigning to lock collective bargaining rights into Michigan’s state constitution on Election Day and are talking about repeating the feat elsewhere if they succeed.

After being put on the back-foot in Wisconsin and Indiana, labor is looking to go on offense in a state with a high density of union members. Business groups and donors to conservative super-PACs are fighting back hard against the ballot initiative, known as Proposal 2, and are pouring millions of dollars into the state to defeat it.

Unions from across the country have countered with a spending push of their own, turning the ballot initiative into another test of labor's political strength this election cycle.

John Armelagos, vice president of the Michigan Nurses Association, said the 2010 elections led to “extremely conservative” Republican lawmakers taking over the statehouse in Lansing, Mich., and passing legislation that targeted unions.

“This isn't your grandfather's Republican party. They are authoritarian. These aren't leave-me-alone types. They have passed bill after bill,” Armelagos said. “I would characterize Proposal 2 as a measured response to the extremism in Lansing. All we are trying to do here to establish a fair playing field so working families can get a fair shake.”

Proposal 2 would give public and private employees the constitutional right to collectively bargain through unions.

Business groups are worried that if the effort succeeds, unions would make good on their promise to try and pass similar initiatives in other states.

Glenn Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, said there are 18 states that allow their state constitutions to be amended by ballot initiative. Spencer said labor could have success in California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio and Oregon.

“Our fear is if it was to pass there, the unions would use this as a template to try to pass it elsewhere,” Spencer said. “There are a number of states that they could attempt to do this where unions remain relatively powerful. That's the worry, that this could spread.”

Critics of Proposal 2 are worried that it grants unions too much power and would discourage business from expanding in Michigan.

The head of the country's largest labor federation on Thursday told reporters he thought Proposal 2 would pass, and said labor would look to build on that success in other states.

“It’s important and if it is successful, and I believe it will be, then we will continue to make efforts like that,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“I think the American public, in a state after state, where it’s actually talked about, collective bargaining, has overwhelmingly supported it,” Trumka said. “It should be engrained in a way that it can’t be at the whim of a newly-elected politician or a statehouse or a state senate that’s flipped over.”

Trumka cited Ohio’s Senate Bill 5, which banned collective bargaining rights for public workers. Unions supported a referendum against the law and were able to overturn it last year with more 60 percent of the vote.

Money has flooded into Michigan to stop the ballot initiative. Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, a group opposed to Proposal 2, has raised more than $23 million so far, according to Michigan campaign finance records.

Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have contributed $2 million to the group. Other deep-pocketed contributors have followed suit — Harold Simmons has given $500,000 to the group, while Joe Ricketts has donated $100,000.

Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which opposes several ballot initiatives including Proposal 2, has raised more than $8 million so far this election cycle.

Union money has flowed into a pro-Proposal 2 group called Protect Working Families, which has raised more than $23 million so far. The United Auto Workers, headquartered in Detroit, accounted for $3.3 million of the donations, with another $1.5 million coming from the National Education Association and $1 million from the Teamsters.

Opponents of Proposal 2 said labor is trying to overturn state laws rather than protect collective bargaining rights in Michigan.

“Collective bargaining is already protected by state law. It is already protected by federal law. No matter what happens on Tuesday, collective bargaining is not going anywhere in the state of Michigan,” said Nick De Leeuw, a spokesman for Protecting Michigan Taxpayers. “What this is about is that second and third bullet [of Proposal 2], which is about invalidating a number of state laws.”

De Leeuw was referring to provisions in the ballot initiative that would invalidate existing or future state laws that limit collective bargaining rights and override state laws that regulate hours and conditions of employment that conflict with collective bargaining agreements.

Unions contend protecting collective bargaining would not hinder the state legislature.

“The legislature would remain in power to enact laws that set hours and conditions of employment. The straight fact that employees would be able to collectively bargain doesn't affect the legislature being able to do that,” Armelagos said.

State business groups that oppose the ballot initiative say it would stop a right-to-work law from being approved in Michigan, which happened earlier year this year in bordering Indiana.

“To approve an amendment to our state constitution that would ban any right-to-work law would be economic development suicide,” said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “Michigan can compete with Indiana without being a right-to-work state, but banning any consideration of right-to-work would be unnecessary and unhelpful. It would send a message to prospective employers across the country that we are pro-union and anti-business.”

Supporters of Proposal 2 say it will help the economy by ensuring union rights that allow workers to negotiate for higher wages and benefits.

Polling has been mixed for Proposal 2, with its fate expected to come down to the wire on Tuesday.

A WDIV Local 4 and Detroit News-commissioned survey released this week found 52.5 percent of Michigan voters would vote “no” on the ballot initiative. An earlier poll released by the news outlets on Oct. 12 found 43.2 percent of Michigan voters would approve Proposal 2, beating 41.8 percent of voters who would disapprove.