BY RICK HAGLUND
Bridge Magazine correspondent
---- — Editor's note: This is one in a series of analyses concerning the Nov. 6 ballot issues from Bridge Magazine, a publication of the Center for Michigan
Michigan has been the scene of historic, sometimes bloody, battles between organized labor and management.
Proposal 2 — the ballot effort to include collective bargaining rights in the Michigan Constitution — has lacked physical confrontation. But there's plenty of bad blood between labor unions, which put the measure on the November ballot, and business groups that vehemently oppose it.
"It's a fascinating response to what happened in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio," Roland Zullo, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, said about the proposal.
Governors and lawmakers in those states have moved aggressively to limit collective bargaining rights and, in Indiana, eliminate union membership as a condition of employment.
Gov. Rick Snyder has been less confrontational in his approach. But he and the Legislature enacted a number of laws, such as outlawing employment benefits for same-sex partners of public workers and requiring government employees to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, that unions oppose.
In addition, Republican lawmakers earlier this year were threatening to introduce Right to Work legislation that would prohibit union membership and payment of union dues as a condition of employment. In response, unions collected enough signatures to put Proposal 2 on the ballot. Opponents concede that passage of the constitutional amendment would block any attempt to enact Right to Work in Michigan.
They also claim it would nullify 170 state laws and cost taxpayers as much as $1.6 billion a year by undoing Snyder administration reforms that have boosted Michigan's economic competitiveness.
"We believe all of that is under attack in November in Proposal 2," said Jared Rodriguez, president of the West Michigan Policy Forum, a group of Grand Rapids-area business leaders. "We believe this is union bosses trying to roll back the clock on Michigan."
Public sector unions at heart of debate
Private and public sector workers already have collective bargaining rights in Michigan. Private sector bargaining is governed by the federal National Labor Relations Act. State civil service laws allow classified state civil service workers to collectively bargain with state government. And, noted the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, "Article XI, Section 5 of the Michigan Constitution provides state police troopers and sergeants with the constitutional right to collective bargaining. These are the only public employees in Michigan with constitutionally protected collective bargaining rights."
All other public employees — including county, municipal, school and university employees — have the right to collectively bargain under the state Public Employee Relations Act of 1965.
Proposal 2 would enshrine those rights in the Michigan Constitution. It would invalidate any existing or future state and local laws that limit the ability of workers to join unions and bargain collectively.
The proposal also would allow workers to negotiate and enforce collective bargaining agreements, including employees' financial support for their labor unions.
Laws may be enacted to prohibit public employees from striking, but the proposal would override state laws that regulate hours and conditions of employment to the extent that those laws conflict with collective bargaining agreements.
The proposal defines "employer" as a person or entity employing one of more employees.
"What it does is make sure that collective bargaining can take place and that broad mandates from the state don't trump decisions reached locally when workers and management come to an agreement about what is best for their workplace," said Dan Lijana, spokesman for Protect Working Families, which backs Proposal 2.
How the proposal would affect average Michigan citizens is unclear, Zullo said.
"It doesn't make it easier for employees to form unions," he said. "It makes it more difficult for government to pass laws to prevent workers from engaging in collective bargaining."
Proposal 2 would appear to have little impact on private-sector workers, except for its ability to prevent enactment of a Right to Work law in Michigan.
The Michigan Manufacturers Association is opposed to passage of Proposal 2, saying it would "negatively impact Michigan's business climate and competitiveness."
But Michigan's heavily unionized automakers say they see little impact of the proposal on their operations. Spokespersons for Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. all said their companies have no position on Proposal 2.
"It doesn't impact us at all," said GM spokeswoman Heather Rosenker. "It's something for the voters to decide."
Gov. Rick Snyder has said his emphasis is on attracting "knowledge jobs," such as engineers, information technology specialists, managers and other positions where union representation is sparse.
Most agree that Proposal 2 is mainly aimed at bolstering the collective bargaining muscle of public sector employees and restoring powers of labor unions representing government workers that were stripped away by the Legislature and the Snyder administration.
An analysis of Proposal 2 by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan said it "has the potential to dramatically alter the established powers and authorities" of various branches of state government.
Adoption of the proposal "promises to bring uncertainty to the management of governments throughout the state and litigation for many years to come," the council's analysis said.
Backers of the proposal acknowledge that it would nullify various state laws related to collective bargaining issues.
An internal memo drafted by the Michigan Education Association said Proposal 2 would overturn dozens of school-related provisions in state law and open them to collective bargaining.
Among them are laws regarding teacher evaluation, the start date of the school year and a prohibition on public employers providing health care and other benefits to same-sex partners of public employees.
"In essence, public sector employees and employers could bring up any issue for negotiation," the Citizens Research Council analysis said.
Business-backed groups opposing Proposal 2 are claiming in television ads that the proposal could eliminate safety rules for school bus drivers, prohibit removal of employees with criminal records and eliminate the use of background checks for school employees.
The claims come from a memo by Attorney General Bill Schuette, who said Proposal 2 could nullify 170 state laws related to employment issues.
Those claims have drawn the ire of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who took the unusual step for a former state leader of weighing in on Proposal 2.
In a recent conference call with reporters, Granholm called the claims "lies and "below-the-belt fear-mongering," according to the Detroit News.
Eric Lupher, director of local affairs at the Citizens Research Council, said in a blog post that claims about Proposal 2 endangering student safety are "probably a stretch."
But Lupher, who co-authored the council's analysis of Proposal 2, said some school safety laws could result in court challenges by unions claiming they are the province of collective bargaining.
Opponents of Proposal 2 also claim that taxpayers could end up paying more to support higher wages and benefits for teachers and other public employees if cost-saving laws are overturned.
A coalition of school administrators and school business officials said Proposal 2 could nullify laws limiting how much school districts can contribute to employee health care costs. That could result in a cost increase of $400 million a year for already strapped school districts, the school officials said.
In its analysis, the Citizens Research Council didn't put a dollar figure on Proposal 2's cost. But it said the proposal would likely cost Michigan taxpayers more to support government services.
"If approved by voters, (Proposal 2) will affect the cost of government because large percentages of government costs relate to personnel," the analysis said. "The ability of the leaders of government at all levels to manage personnel costs directly translates into a cost to taxpayers and the quantity and quality of services."
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.