By Ted Roelofs/Bridge Magazine contributor
INDIANAPOLIS — With passage of Right to Work legislation imminent, Indiana Democrats huddled on a Monday night in February 2011 to plot strategy.
The following morning, some three dozen state representatives bolted for the Comfort Suites in Urbana, Ill., trying to wait out a Republican majority determined to push the measure through. The move left the GOP short of the two-thirds quorum they needed to consider a bill. The exodus lasted five weeks.
“We knew we couldn’t hold out forever,” recalled state Rep. Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne. “Some of our members began to get nervous. There was an election coming up.”
By early 2012, the bill came up again and it passed despite unanimous opposition from GiaQuinta and 38 other Democrats. Its passage made Indiana first in the Midwest to approve RTW legislation.
There were no jaunts to disrupt quorums in Michigan when Right to Work came to the forefront of the legislative calendar last December. Republicans acted so quickly, it seems Democrats were caught flat-footed. Leaving the state was no option anyway, since legislative rules require only a majority to convene a session in Michigan.
So, after brief debate and amid raucous protests, Gov. Rick Snyder signed the law Dec. 11, which is expected to take effect in April.
Right to Work looks like a settled law for now in Indiana, where the GOP holds a two-thirds margin in both the state House and state Senate.
But GiaQuinta isn’t so sure about Michigan:
“I don’t know all of the political landscape there. But if (Snyder) runs again, I am guessing he has a tough time. Probably more than anything else, it’s the way they did it. I don’t think people like that it was a back-door deal.”
Time will tell if GiaQuinta is right.
A poll released Dec. 18, 2012, by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that Snyder’s approval rating plummeted to 38 percent, down 28 points from November. Whether he recovers before the 2014 election may hinge on his ability to sell RTW as a jobs creator and whether Michigan’s economic recovery continues.
Either way, Michigan Democrats are determined to do more than their Indiana counterparts.
Michigan Republicans attached a spending measure to the bill, which prohibits it being undone by voter-initiated referendum. Unions, however, believe they can overturn it through statutory initiative.
According to the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, opponents would have to file petitions with signatures of registered voters equal to 8 percent of total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election for a statutory initiative. (By contrast, a referendum requires 5 percent.)
Based on the approximately 3.23 million votes cast in the 2010 gubernatorial contest, petition advocates would need about 258,000 signatures.
With a Republican majority, the Legislature would presumably reject the petition, after which it would go on the ballot in 2014. Eric Lupher of the CRC said statutory initiative “has been used about a dozen times” since Michigan’s current constitution was adopted in 1963.
How voters respond under such a scenario could go long a way toward defining a state once regarded as the heart of organized labor.
Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer continues to say that “all options are on the table” for 2014:
“If a decision is made to do a ballot proposal, getting enough signatures won’t be a problem.
“I think people were offended by the process. Regardless of what you think of the merits of this, ramming it through without a hearing, the Capitol being closed for part of this, I think offends people of all stripes.”
Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.