Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 20, 2012

Ballot initiative bold new tactic for labor after setbacks in Michigan


---- — TRAVERSE CITY (AP) — It's hardly a return to the Depression era, when company guards roughed up labor organizers at auto plants. But times are tough for unions in the Rust Belt, even in a longtime bastion like Michigan. Here, emergency managers have been given the power to throw out union contracts in financially struggling cities. Neighboring Wisconsin has stripped public employees of collective bargaining rights and Indiana has approved "right-to-work" legislation.

Now, after a series of setbacks at the hands of Republican governors and legislatures, labor is attempting a bold gambit in hopes of regaining some momentum: a first-of-its-kind ballot initiative in the Nov. 6 election that would put collective bargaining rights in the Michigan constitution — and out of lawmakers' reach.

If successful, the strategy could serve as a model for other states, encouraging unions to bypass hostile officeholders and take their case directly to the voters. Twenty-one states allow citizens to vote on proposed laws and 18 permit their constitutions to be amended through referendums.

"We're working hard to get this passed. We're not going to leave any resources on the table because it could be a harbinger of things to come across the country," said John Armelagos, 57, a registered nurse in Ann Arbor and activist in the campaign for the initiative.

Although four other states guaranteed bargaining rights in their constitutions decades ago, none did so through a statewide ballot initiative. The initiative route has been used successfully by other interest groups for everything from banning gay marriage and affirmative action to guaranteeing hunting rights.

A labor coalition called Protect Working Families has poured about $6.5 million into television ads supporting the proposal, according to the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Two business-backed groups have spent a similar amount in opposition, while high-ranking Republicans — including Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette — are campaigning against the measure.

A poll last month showed the measure slightly ahead.

Given the high stakes, the union movement considers that a price worth paying.

"Labor is on the defensive," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Insitute, a liberal research and policy organization in Washington, D.C. "This could very well be a turning point if the people of Michigan affirm collective bargaining."