An initiative on the Michigan ballot this November has international unions pouring money into the state, and local business leaders losing sleep. If it passes, it will dramatically increase the power of public-sector unions, and it could stifle the nascent recovery of the state’s struggling economy. It would also give union bosses a new tool in their nationwide battle for increased political clout.
Proposal 2, called the “Protect Our Jobs” amendment, would constitutionally guarantee collective-bargaining rights to both private and public employees and invalidate any existing state laws that “abridge, impair, or limit” these rights. Its opponents argue that the amendment would nullify much of the reform legislation that has passed since Republican Rick Snyder took the governor’s office in 2011. Upwards of 170 pieces of legislation could be affected if the proposal passes, according to state business leaders.
“Union contracts will trump state law,” says Jim Holcomb of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, “and that’s not hyperbole.”
Even the proposal’s advocates aren’t completely sure how far its impact could reach. During a legal filing with the state board of canvassers, an attorney for the unions said nobody could determine what specific parts of Michigan law the amendment might affect. “If POJ passes, its interaction with existing constitutional provisions, laws, and ordinances will be determined by the courts on a case-by-case basis,” he explained.
The outcome for the initiative will be hugely consequential in a region of the country where conflict over collective bargaining has drawn national attention over the last year. Unions suffered significant blows when they failed to recall Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and when Indiana passed right-to-work legislation. But the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike and Ohio voters’ rejection of Governor John Kasich’s reforms concerning public-employee unions show that labor leaders still have a lot of sway in the heartland.
Passage of the Michigan initiative would be a big strategic victory for the unions, according to Vinnie Vernuccio of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “The fact of the matter is that Prop 2 would fundamentally change the power structure in Michigan,” he says. “And nationally, if it goes through in Michigan, watch out, because it’s coming to a state near you.”
Vernuccio argues that if union leaders succeed in making Michigan the first state to give constitutional protection to collective-bargaining rights, they would push for similar measures in the other 18 states that allow voter-initiated constitutional amendments.
The proposal’s passage could invalidate many of the reforms Governor Snyder has signed into law. One of those reforms makes it easier to fire ineffective teachers, regardless of seniority. This is anathema to teachers’ unions, for which “Last in, first out” is a sacred cow.
Another of Snyder’s reforms requires government workers to pay at least 20 percent of their health-care premiums. That’s still less than the 25 to 30 percent that private-sector workers typically pay, according to Holcomb. “That reform is certainly reasonable,” he tells National Review Online. “Prop 2 would wipe it off the books.”
And the initiative would cost taxpayers a lot — Vernuccio estimates that it could eliminate upwards of $1.6 billion in savings, which is bad news for everyone who is not a union member. Incidentally, the group pushing for the proposal was initially called Protect Our Jobs, but it soon changed its name to Protect Working Families. Why the semantic shift? Jared Rodriguez, president of a group fighting the proposal, has a theory. “I think that it became very clear, early on, that ‘our jobs’ was about union jobs, and union jobs only,” he says. “They were only looking out for one segment of Michigan’s working population.”
Besides costing taxpayers directly, the initiative would be likely to discourage businesses from investing in the state. Rich Studley of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce describes Prop 2 as “a bizarre and extreme overreaction by union bosses in Detroit to Indiana’s becoming a right-to-work state. They really hit the panic button here,” he adds. But overturning Governor Snyder’s reforms would make it even tougher for Michigan to compete with Indiana. “I have heard Proposal 2 described by businesspeople in western Michigan as economic-development suicide,” Studley says.
The proposal would also send discouraging signals to potential investors about the future of labor relations in the state, argues Doug Rothwell, president of Business Leaders for Michigan. “Michigan, traditionally, has been viewed as a state that has acrimonious labor-management relations,” Rothwell says. His organization has been encouraged by increasing goodwill between labor and business interests in recent years, but Prop 2 would jeopardize that. “We think that passing a law like this at this particular time,” he says, “would symbolize to a lot of prospective employers and investors that Michigan really is a state that does not want to try to overcome some of its past history.”
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.