Court allows voters to vote on Michigan collective bargaining amendment

A Michigan court of appeals on August 27 ruled that the people of Michigan will have the opportunity this November to decide whether collective bargaining will become a right protected by the state’s constitution. Supporters of the referendum gathered 700,000 signatures on a petition to put the collective bargaining initiative on November’s ballot.

That was double the number needed to put the initiative on the ballot, and in March the state’s Board of Canvassers unanimously ruled in favor of letting voters decide on the initiative

But a coalition of business groups lobbied against allowing the vote to take place.  As a result, the governor voiced his opposition to it, the state’s attorney general wrote an opinion against it, and two Republican members of the board subsequently reversed themselves and deadlocked the board. The matter was then referred to the courts.

Supporters of the initiative applauded the court’s decision. “It’s a major victory for working people,” said Karen Kuciel, a Warren Consolidated Schools teacher. “Collective bargaining will be on the ballot for a vote. Now we must overcome the corporate special interests at the ballot box to ensure we have a voice for fair wages, benefits and safe working conditions for all of us.”

Supporters said that the actions to keep the collective bargaining measure off the ballot was unprecedented. “No Michigan governor or attorney general has ever taken such drastic action to prevent citizens from exercising their right to vote,” read a statement by Protect Working Families, a labor and community coalition that organized the effort to get the initiative on the ballot.

Protect Working Families also noted that in recent years, Michigan citizens have voted without interference by state officials or the business community on several amendments to the state constitution including those on stem cell research, affirmative action, and the definition of marriage.

The amendment was proposed because many feel that the right to collective bargaining is under attack and needs the extra layer of protection afforded by making it a constitutional right.

They point to developments in nearby states as proof. In Indiana, a so-called right to work law that makes it more difficult to bargain collectively was recently enacted. In Wisconsin, the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers has been severely restricted.

And “in the past year alone, more than 80 bills curtailing workers’ rights and collective power have been introduced in the Michigan legislature,” said Bonnie Halloran and Kathryn Frank in a guest column supporting the amendment published by Ann Arbor.com.

In order to win the vote in November, supporters have initiated a strategy that incorporates grassroots organizing and a media campaign.

Beginning this past weekend, volunteers have been going door-to-door in their communities to talk to people about the importance of passing the amendment. This canvassing project will continue every weekend until the election takes place. Unions are asking members to volunteer for at least one two-hour canvassing session.

On August 29, Protect Working Families released the second in a series of television ads aimed at building support for the amendment. This one talks about the role that collective bargaining played in helping the auto industry rebound.

The first ad features Kuciel, who talks about how collective bargaining has helped improve education. She points out that “states with restrictions on collective bargaining spend $2,671 less in pupil funding for elementary and secondary education than states without the restrictions.”

One of the main arguments that supporters are making is that collective bargaining does more than achieve better wages and benefits, it helps the community as a whole.

Take Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. Before the nurses at the hospital began bargaining collectively, nurse workloads were too high. “It was pretty tough,” said Ashley Forsberg to the Lansing State Journal. “You could do it but you were always running. Instead of being proactive, you were being reactive.”

That changed after the nurses began bargaining collectively, and the nurses negotiated more manageable caseloads The manageable caseloads helped improve patient care.

“(The improved care) would not have occurred without collective bargaining, or we would have seen it across the state already,” said Jeff Breslin, a nurse at Sparrow and president of the Michigan Nurses Association to the State Journal. “We have seen time and time again that hospitals (where employees bargain collectively) saved money and improved patient satisfaction, and had better patient outcomes.”

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