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Michigan Workers Fight Emergency Managers, Plan Constitutional Amendment to Protect Union Rights

Getting out in front of the spreading attacks on workers, Michigan unions plan a constitutional amendment to ban further encroachment on collective bargaining rights.
 
 
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This piece was originally published by Labor Notes. Come to the Labor Notes conferenceMay 4-6 in Chicago, the biggest gathering of grassroots labor activists and all-around troublemakers out there! Don’t miss a weekend of education, agitation, and inspiration.

Governor Mitch Daniels received a bouquet of roses after he signed Indiana’s right-to-work law in February—not from U.S. Steel or Subaru or other grateful Indiana employers, but from an ambitious Republican in next-door Michigan.

State Representative Michael Shirkey said he wanted to thank Daniels for setting the bar high, while promoting his own drive for right to work.

Though no credible research backs him, Shirkey claims Indiana now has the edge in attracting investment, so he wants to “eliminate [the union shop] as an obstacle and level the playing field.” Michigan’s workforce is 16.5 percent unionized.

Although Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says he’s not interested in pushing right to work, unionists note Daniels said the same thing before reversing course this year. As in Indiana, Republicans control both houses of the Michigan legislature.

Amend to Defend

Michigan’s top union leaders are meeting behind closed doors to decide whether to take on the huge fight it would require to amend the state constitution to block right to work, with a ballot initiative this November.

Al Garrett, head of statewide AFSCME Council 25, said the amendment would prohibit the legislature from crafting new laws that infringe on collective bargaining rights in the private or public sectors. Language is under discussion.

United Auto Workers (UAW) President Bob King surprised Detroit community activists February 2 when he revealed the plan at a small forum. Some audience members had been active in gathering signatures to put a different issue, the state’s emergency manager law, on the November ballot.

Passed last year over heated objections from unions, that law allows Snyder to appoint overseers for cities or school districts operating in the red. They have the power to cancel union contracts, sell off local assets, and remove elected local officials.

In Wisconsin, unions were instrumental in gathering more than a million signatures to recall the anti-union governor. In Ohio, they did the same to repeal an anti-collective bargaining law.

When an audience member asked why Michigan unions have not wholeheartedly backed the petition to repeal the emergency manager law, King said leaders thought amending the constitution was a better, more permanent strategy. A constitutional amendment would block both right to work and emergency managers, he said. The measure does not have to pass the legislature.

Finally Enough

Community organizations, churches, and some union locals struggled to collect signatures to put repeal of the manager law on the fall ballot, finally announcing February 13 that they had reached the threshold.

Under Michigan law, once 162,000 signatures are certified, the law is suspended until voters have their say. Opponents had wanted to get the law on hold last fall, before more cities could fall under the ax. Detroit is currently under state officials’ review.

Ray Holman, legislative liaison for a UAW local representing 17,000 state employees, said, “Some of us have been collecting as individual citizens, not because the union told us to.”

Anti-Democratic 

Opponents decry the emergency managers as an infringement on democratic rights and note that all the jurisdictions now operating under them are majority African American. The manager in Detroit’s school district, a former GM executive, is closing and charterizing schools left and right.

King pointed out that even if the original manager law is suspended, the legislature could quickly pass another, similar one—which legislators have, in fact, threatened to do.

 
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