By Rick Haglund/Bridge Magazine correspondent
While voters defeated proposals to lock collective bargaining rights in the constitution and restore bargaining rights to home health workers on Tuesday, the battle over labor rules is far from over in Michigan.
The defeat of Proposal 2, the collective bargaining ballot issue, clears the way for a possible Right to Work bill to be introduced in the Legislature.
Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake and the main proponent of RTW in the Legislature, said he intends to do just that — eventually.
Right to Work prohibits the payment of union dues as a condition of employment. Workers who choose not to pay dues are still represented by union contracts.
The enthusiasm by business lobbying groups to make Michigan a RTW state has picked up since neighboring Indiana earlier this year became the first Great Lakes state to adopt the measure.
“My top priority is to make Michigan the next labor freedom state,” Shirkey said on Wednesday, hours after voters defeated Proposal 2 by a 58 percent-to-42 percent margin.
But Shirkey said he faces an uphill battle because of opposition from many of his fellow lawmakers and, most significantly, from Gov. Rick Snyder.
Shirkey said he would introduce a RTW bill only “when I know for certain that I have the support of the governor.”
That support may not be forthcoming any time soon. Snyder told reporters Wednesday, as he has many times, that Right to Work legislation is not on his agenda. But he again wouldn’t say whether he would veto a bill, should it reach his desk.
The voter turn-down of the collective bargaining amendment is the latest in a growing line of significant public sector union defeats in recent years, including:
• Failure in 2008 of the pro-labor Reform Michigan Government Now ballot issue.
• The resounding defeat of labor-backed Virg Bernero as the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010.
• The past two years of GOP victories in Lansing on business tax cuts and pension tax increases, as well as a wide variety of anti-labor government reforms from the end of dues check-off to increased public employee concessions.
Meanwhile, the labor-backed group Progress Michigan, which sponsored Proposal 2, released a survey Wednesday it said found 70 percent of Michigan voters support collective bargaining rights, including 55 percent of those who voted against Proposal 2.
The poll of 500 Michigan voters was taken on Nov. 5 and 6.
Zack Pohl, executive director of Progress Michigan, said the poll was conducted to show lawmakers and others that Michigan residents would likely oppose Right to Work legislation.
“Moving forward, any attempt by Lansing politicians to pass new laws that undermine (collective bargaining) would be a serious mistake,” he said.
But already on Wednesday, there was buzz among some Lansing observers and policy wonks about the possibility of “Right to Work Lite” – some sort of hybrid that could seek to weaken public sector unions while exempting the private sector and also possibly exempting police unions which, to some extent, sat on the sidelines of the Prop 2 battle. Some suggested there was even the possibility of a horse trade – support for conservatives’ Right to Work legislation in exchange for moderates’ gasoline tax increase to pay for road repairs; others, however, downplayed such talk.
The state’s leading organized voice for Right to Work legislation, the West Michigan Policy Forum, did not immediately seek to heighten the Right to Work issue Wednesday and instead chose to savor the defeat of the constitutional ballot measures.
“First we had to defeat the ballot proposals to have a shot at any of our agenda items, including such issues as transportation funding,” said Jared Rodriguez, president of the West Michigan Policy Forum. “Moving forward, we are committed to working on our list of priorities. All of them.”
Private-sector workers have collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act. State civil service workers have collective bargaining rights under state law. State police troopers and sergeants have had constitutionally protected collective bargaining rights since 1978.
What now on home health?
Voters on Tuesday also defeated Proposal 4, which would have re-instated limited collective bargaining rights to home health aides. Those rights were granted during the past administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, but removed by the current Legislature.
Dohn Hoyle, co-chairman of Citizens for Affordable Health Care, which sponsored Proposal 4, said in a statement that “senior and disability rights advocates across Michigan will continue our efforts to advocate for a strong registry that links home care recipients with trained home care providers who have passed criminal background checks.”
Labor-backed groups spent $31.1 million in their effort to pass Proposals 2 and 4, while business-backed groups spent $31.5 million in a successful effort to defeat them, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
One labor expert said it would be a mistake to interpret the defeats as a sign of organized labor’s declining political power in Michigan, noting that all six proposals on the ballot went down.
“It’s not clear to me that this says anything about the power of unions,” said Richard Block, a retired professor of labor and industrial relations at Michigan State University. “It suggests to me that the voters of Michigan are not particularly interested in amending the constitution.”
Block, who now works as a labor arbitrator, said voters also likely were disgusted by the sensational, misleading claims made by both sides on Proposals 2 and 4, and decided keep the status quo.
“If you listened to any of the ads, they all said the sky was going to fall,” he said. “I think voters decided if the sky is going to fall, let it fall on a world I know rather than the one I don’t know.”
But Block said it was clear that the unions’ main interest in putting Proposal 2 on the ballot was to head off a right-to-work law. Their failure at the ballot box will likely put the issue on the front burner when a new Legislature convenes in January.
Spokesman Ari Adler said House Speaker Jase Bolger backed off on taking RTW legislation earlier this year at Snyder’s request.
But organized labor’s decision to put Proposal 2 on the ballot and its subsequent defeat is a game-changer, Adler said.
“The unions have opened the door to having this debate and the Speaker is happy to walk through it,” he said.
Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.