By Kristen M. Daum
House Republicans appear willing to start a political debate that undoubtedly will
incite the fury of Michigan’s labor unions and their allies, while putting Republican
Gov. Rick Snyder and Senate leadership smack in the middle of the fight.
The election pushed the question of “right to work” to the forefront of some Michigan lawmakers’ agendas, and it’s possible discussions over such a policy could begin as early as the end of this month, when the Legislature reconvenes its lame-duck session.
It’s an issue Snyder has repeatedly said should not be on Republicans’ agenda. Right to work refers to laws that give workers the freedom to choose whether they join a union. Such laws prevent businesses from requiring union membership or dues payments as a condition of employment.
Some House Republicans said the unions brought the potential battle on themselves by pushing for Proposal 2, a failed measure on last week’s ballot that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.
Democrats and union leaders point their fingers back at Republicans. They say Republicans instigated the fight by proposing what they claim were “over 100” anti-labor bills over the past two years.
It’s a fight that could be reminiscent of the labor battles waged last year in Wisconsin, where Republican efforts to scale back collective bargaining rights for public employees sparked massive protests and a failed recall against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.
Of the six proposals that Michigan voters shot down last week, three involved workers’ rights in the state.
The election delivered a mixed result for unions: A small victory with the defeat of the emergency financial manager law, but disappointment with the failure of proposals that would have made collective bargaining a constitutional right for all workers and specifically for home health care workers.
The failure of Proposal 2 — collective bargaining rights for all workers — was, perhaps, the biggest blow for the unions, which campaigned heavily for its passage.
The measure failed after receiving only 47 percent of the statewide vote, according to unofficial results.
Proposal 4, which would have guaranteed collective bargaining rights specifically for home health care workers, also failed, with 56 percent of voters’ opposing it.
“We’re facing a lot of bad legislation that takes away bargaining rights and takes away the ability to have a voice in the workplace,” said Ray Holman, spokesman for United Auto Workers 6000, the largest state employees’ union. “It’s a little depressing — that we really worked hard and got a lot of people motivated and felt it was a righteous cause — to have voters reject it.”
Holman’s union represents 15,000 state employees. They are among 671,100 workers in Michigan — or about 17.5 percent of the paid workforce — who belonged to a union and another 32,000 workers who were represented by one, as of 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer blamed Proposal 2’s defeat solely on what he called the “distortions and lies” offered by opponents, who poured about $31 million into their ad campaign.
“It’s a matter of educating folks about collective bargaining, but the resources on the other side who are opposed to this — even with a lot of money, it’s very difficult to overcome a negative message like that,” Brewer said.
When praising voters for rejecting the five proposed constitutional amendments on Tuesday’s ballot, most Republican officials avoided calling out the unions.
“I don’t pick out any particular group,” Snyder said. “But this sends a strong message to special interests in general that theMichiganConstitution isn’t meant for them.”
However, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bob Schostak said voters’ decision to “resoundingly smash” Proposal 2 was “a message to the unions.”
“Nobody wants a war over this stuff,” Schostak quickly added. “We just want a productive state that’s a place for jobs and growth.”
Forcing the debate
Snyder has been adamant that he’s not interested in considering right-to-work legislation, and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, has thus far stood with Snyder on the issue. He could not be reached for comment.
But House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, who won a tight race for re-election Tuesday, said he now is willing to discuss right to work because, he says, the unions opened the door for the Legislature to consider it.
“We respected the governor’s request to not push that forward. The unions did not respect that request and pushed forward through Proposal 2,” Bolger spokesman Ari Adler said.
Adler said lawmakers should “be open to the conversation” and that a specific bill could be introduced at some point as “a starting point” for debate.
Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, agrees with Bolger that Proposal 2’s defeat means right to work should be a priority again.
“I will not stop until we have a debate and, hopefully, have a vote,” said Shirkey, one of the leading supporters of right to work in Michigan. His district includes a portion of Eaton County.
Shirkey acknowledged, though, that it’ll be an uphill battle to get buy-in from Senate Republicans and Snyder.
“The House is not the obstacle,”he said. “I won’t put my colleagues or the citizens of Michigan through the process until we have that broad support.”
Shirkey added: “I’m pretty confident we’re going to be talking about it in the lame-duck, but it’ll be a Herculean effort to even imagine getting it done.”
Outgoing House Democratic Leader Richard Hammel, of Mount Morris Township, said Republicans shouldn’t introduce right-to-work legislation during the lame-duck session, but talking about it is “not a problem.”
“I’ve never been afraid to talk about how it’s wrong for our state,” Hammel said.
Other House Democrats said they oppose the Republicans’ possible strategy and cautioned them against broaching right to work in the lame-duck session, if at all.
“That would be a waste of time,” said outgoing Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing.
Regardless of what happens, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, another East Lansing Democrat, said her caucus is prepared to react to whatever Republicans might pursue.
How much Senate Democrats will actually be able to do is unclear. Republicans have a 26-12 majority in the Senate.
“They’re reeling from the election and genuinely surprised by the result,” Whitmer said in reference to President Barack Obama’s win in Michigan. “It’s unpredictable how they might be taking out their frustration.”
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