Labor Takes Lumps in Michigan

Labor-backed constitutional amendments suffer defeat at Michigan polls

Voters / AP
November 12, 2012

Michigan voters rejected two union-backed efforts to amend that state’s constitution on Tuesday despite heavy spending by big labor and a largely unionized population.

Government employees unions led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) proposed two amendments to the state constitution that would have made collective bargaining a constitutional right (Proposition 2) and forced family members that care for disabled relatives into the union (Proposition 4).

Despite the fact that the state’s workforce is 17.5 percent unionized—about 50 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics study, the most recent available—Proposition 2 lost 58 percent to 42 percent and Proposition 4 lost 57 percent to 43 percent.

"This was the number one union issue on the ballot aside from the president, but voters are resoundingly supporting labor reforms, even as voters are resoundingly accepting Obama," said Vincent Vernuccio, a labor policy expert at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Republican Gov. Richard Snyder began enacting public sector pay and benefit reforms when he assumed office in 2011 in order to curb a $1.7 billion budget deficit he inherited from Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the government retirement system set to run dry by 2023.

Snyder backed a number of labor reform packages, including the elimination of "last-in, first-out" policies that forces school districts to lay off teachers by seniority regardless of performance.

He also successfully raised teacher pension contributions to 3 percent from zero. This move is projected to save the state $15 billion over 30 years. Snyder even opposed the forced unionization of home healthcare workers unions set out to protect in Proposition 4—a practice that has generated more than $32 million for SEIU since 2005.

"They [the unions] were responding to direct attacks to unions by the legislature and Republicans; they decided to do an end around the legislature," said Bob McCann, spokesman for Michigan Senate Democratic Leader and prospective gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer.

The amendments accounted for $60 million of the $141 million spent on ballot initiatives in 2012, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. That money helped fuel an onslaught of television advertising. Two of those ads were 30-second spots featuring firefighters and cops telling voters that their lives could be at risk without collective bargaining.

"This air pack I’m wearing gives me 30 minutes to look inside your burning home and find you," Lincoln Park Firefighter Mike Hendricks tells the camera through his air mask. "[Collective bargaining] means we negotiate for gear we need to protect your lives and ours."

Vernuccio says the unions overplayed their hand with such advertisements. The vast majority of collective bargaining is concentrated on securing higher pay and benefits to members.

"Prop 2 would have made the unions a super-legislature, enabling them to supersede 170 laws," Vernuccio said. "They conveniently left out the part of the amendment that read that any existing or future laws that affects wages, hours, employment terms or conditions could be repealed by CBA."

Proposition 2 opponents used sections of existing labor agreements against the union onslaught.

"Here’s just one example: if Proposal 2 passes, teachers caught drunk on the job get five chances," a Protecting Michigan Taxpayers ad said in reference to a Bay City, Mich. collective bargaining agreement.

Some union allies see the amendments’ defeat as a reflection of voter distrust of change.

"What you saw with the proposals was an overwhelming ‘No’ vote from the people—that was the dominant mindset," Whitmer spokesman Bob McCann said. "There were so many proposals on the ballot and such large money spent on them that people tuned out, figuring that special interests were trying to buy the Constitution."

Michigan rejected all six ballot initiatives. Only Proposition 1, which would have extended Gov. Snyder’s power to appoint emergency managers tasked with cutting union contracts and controlling costs in failing cities across the state, lost by single digits.

McCann said the presence of so many ballots hurt labor efforts.

"If it’s just Prop 2 on the ballot, the numbers would have been fairly different," McCann said. "Would it have passed? Not necessarily, but I think it’s going to close the door to further attacks."

A union survey taken after the election found that 70 percent of Michigan residents support the concept of collective bargaining. However, the wide margin of victory for Proposition 2 and 4’s opponents points to a Michigan electorate that is not nearly as union friendly as labor and Democratic leaders once assumed.

"Traditionally, Michigan is a union stronghold; this election speaks strongly about waning power," Vernuccio said. "The opposition was just so far reaching that you can’t ignore the crossover popularity of these reforms."

McCann agreed that the numbers cannot be ignored.

"The thinking was that however strong Obama did in Michigan would correlate in how well Props 2, 3, and 4 were doing," McCann said. "Obama did well in Michigan, but we didn’t see the carryover—even Democratic voters had that same level of distaste for proposals."