Unions Place Big Bet On 2012 Ballot

Oct 10, 2012

Unions are betting big on ballot proposals in Michigan this election. Voters in California and Alabama will also decide ballot questions dealing with unions, but neither of those measures is as sweeping as Michigan’s. It would enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. That could potentially reverse as many as 170 Michigan labor laws that limit union bargaining power and fundraising.

Emboldened by a ballot victory last year in Ohio, union leaders and Democrats in neighboring Michigan sensed an opportunity. They want to build a firewall to stop Republican efforts to curtail unions’ workplace activities. Labor’s top goal is to make sure the state Legislature cannot pass a so-called right-to-work law that outlaws compulsory union membership. Business groups are pushing back. 

Michigan is saturated with political ads in no small part because there are six proposals on the November ballot. Half of them were put on the ballot with big union backing and are now the subject of fierce campaigning on both sides.

One TV ad that speaks to one of the ballot proposals effects has been criticized for going too far, but it has taken a big bite out of support for the measure. And that’s that it would throw into doubt many laws about how unions and employers deal with each other.

“This would be unprecedented in the country that it would really disallow our legislature to deal with issues of labor law,” says Rob Fowler, the president of a small business association.

Fowler says that’s why business groups are pouring a fortune into opposing Proposal 2 and other union-backed ballot questions. “The essence of Proposal 2, in particular, says if it can be bargained, then it can’t be legislated," he says. "It will take off the table a huge amount of what is traditional labor law in most states."

Fowler says that would create a sense of uncertainty that would threaten Michigan’s economic recovery.

Unions are also trying to repeal a very controversial law that gives state-appointed managers sweeping authority over nearly bankrupt local governments. Among other things, the managers can and have scrapped contracts with public employee unions. Seven Michigan cities and school districts have been taken over. And another question would allow home health assistants who are paid by Medicaid to organize into a union.

All of these make the November ballot the next flashpoint in the long-simmering battle in Michigan between Republicans in the Legislature and labor. And unions are putting in both money and boots on the ground.

Todd McCastle is a union carpenter who says he’s hit hundreds of doors to get people to support the ballot question.  McCastle says he’s been getting a good reception here in mid-Michigan in neighborhoods where generations have worked in nearby auto plants.

“They’ve either grown up in a culture where they’ve either worked and been effected by collective bargaining directly or their families have," he says. "I think that they recognize the services that we have with police and fire and the assets that our teachers are. I think when they can personalize it, that grows the support.”

The stakes are big.       

If voters adopt Proposal 2, bargaining rights are locked into the state constitution.

If voters reject it, that could give the go-ahead to Republicans in the Legislature who want to make Michigan – like Indiana did earlier this year -- a right-to-work state.

That would be a huge culture change for a state here in the heartland of organized labor.