Collective bargaining rights could be enshrined in Michigan's Constitution

Nov 1, 2012

Voters in Michigan could make some big changes to the Michigan Constitution on November 6th. They’ll decide on five proposed amendments to Michigan’s guiding legal document.

Proposal 2 would enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution.

Those supporting Proposal 2 say they’re just trying to protect workers’ rights. Labor unions around the Midwest have been feeling squeezed. The legislature in Wisconsin stripped public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights.

Lawmakers in Ohio tried to do the same thing, and Indiana passed an anti-union “right-to-work” law.

Organizers in Michigan say the anti-union efforts here have been more subtle.

As a registered nurse at the University of Michigan Hospital, John Armelagos is public sector worker, and he’s a member of National Nurses United, the Michigan Nurses Association, and the UM Professional Nurse Council.

...unions in the state are "dying a death of a thousand cuts."

He says the public sector unions in the state are “dying a death of a thousand cuts.”

Since 2010, Armelagos says there’s been a radical shift in the state legislature, and bills have been passed that have slowly chipped away at long established collective bargaining rights.

“One bill here attacks public school teachers, another bill here harms firefights and police, another bill may harm public employees across the board,” says Armelagos.

Governor Snyder and the Republican-led legislature passed laws that forced public employees to pay more for healthcare; to contribute more to their pensions; that changed teacher tenure laws; and that allowed union contracts to be voided.

Public school teachers protesting in Lansing on February 26th, 2011.
Public school teachers protesting in Lansing on February 26th, 2011.
Credit mea.org

These laws, and other proposals seen as anti-union, set off a series of protests in Lansing.

The protests led to a petition drive, and now Michigan voters are faced with a choice.

Union organizers say voters need to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution.

They say these rights are fundamental, and they belong in the state’s guiding document.

But those opposed to Proposal 2 say it goes too far.

The amendment would invalidate current and future laws that quote “limit the ability to join unions and bargain collectively.”

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s Wendy Block says the state legislature has a duty to step in when local governments are unable to control costs.

She says if Proposal 2 passes, it will put too much power in the hands of unions.

"Each and every little issue that would be put on the bargaining table, now cannot have a state law that impacts it. That is really dangerous and unprecedented. No other state does anything like this...", says Block.

“Each and every little issue that would be put on the bargaining table, now cannot have a state law that impacts it. That is really dangerous and unprecedented. No other state does anything like this. I think that the uncertainty that that language is going to cause, which extremely broad, really is the wrong direction for Michigan,” says Block.

There are a lot of questions about what laws will be affected if Proposal 2 passes.

Eric Lupher is with the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. The independent, non-partisan group evaluated all the statewide ballot proposals.

Lupher says as labor unions negotiate their contracts, conflicts with existing state laws are bound to come up.

“It would be a good time to be a lawyer in Michigan, because we will be forever trying to sort out what laws did infringe on the right to collective bargaining and which didn’t,” says Lupher.

And Lupher says it’s not just the conflicts with state laws that would trigger legal battles. The amendment would also create conflicts within the Constitution itself.

Supporters of Proposal 2 say the Constitutional amendment would shift the power back to where it belongs.

The bargaining table where they say the parties who know best sit down to negotiate solutions.

The proposed amendment raises some thorny questions for voters who support bargaining rights, but who don’t necessarily want to lock those rights into the state Constitution.

"It's a question of whether they should be provided for in the Constitution or not," said Eric Lupher.

“It’s not a question of whether Michigan should continue to have unions or not, they’re going to be here, and they’re going to be an important part of our economy. It’s a question of whether they should be provided for in the Constitution or not," said Eric Lupher.

Michigan was the birthplace of the American labor movement, so labor unions, business interests, and governments are watching what happens here.

The strength of organized labor is being tested in many states, and the outcome of Proposal 2 could have a ripple effect across the U.S.