Michigan’s 2012 Ballot Proposals: Collective Bargaining is a Right, not a Privilege

Michigan has six ballot proposals this year, which seems like a lot, especially since many voters will be forming opinions on the fly next month. Partially to help organize my own thoughts before I submit my ballot, I am going to explain my positions on each of the six proposals here.

Proposal 1: A Referendum on Public Act 4 of 2011 – The Emergency Manager Law

My position: No.

Proposal 1 would affirm the authority of emergency financial managers as defined in Governor Rick Snyder’s law which received so much negative attention last year. The state government has been allowed to appoint emergency managers to oversee some local financial dealings since 1990, but the 2011 Emergency Manager Law gives such managers additional powers which violate the principles of the democratic process. Most notably, the new emergency managers can override collective bargaining agreements and even dissolve local governments. The details of this issue are complicated, but when appointed officials can dissolve governments composed of elected officials, something fishy is going on. Emergency managers serve “at the pleasure of the governor,” and, while they can be impeached by the legislature, there are few short-term checks on their power. Snyder wanted a way to fix financially insolvent school districts and local governments quickly – a goal which makes sense in theory – but Public Act 4 was too extensive of a power grab.

See this .pdf for the text of the 2011 Emergency Manager Law in question.

Proposal 2: A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution Regarding Collective Bargaining

My position: Yes.

Proposal 2 would, in its own words, “grant public and private employees the constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively through labor unions.” This policy would not change much for private employees, but it could make a big difference for public employees.

In a society where efforts on the part of governments and businesses to interfere with unionization are still a real threat, it makes sense to reaffirm that collective bargaining is a right, not a privilege. In light of recent efforts to frame unions – especially unions of public employees like teachers – as enemies of economic recovery, now is the perfect time to defend the fundamental right to unionize. Proposal 2 would send a message that economic crises are not an excuse to bully and scapegoat public employees.

The Detroit Free Press and others have argued that guaranteeing collective bargaining rights in the constitution would provide little benefit for workers but would hamper the government’s ability to negotiate. They believe that collective bargaining rights should be “subject to discussion and negotiation.” In fact, collective bargaining is a precursor to fair negotiation. Unionization is not merely another benefit to be negotiated for, like a pension plan – unionization is what gives public workers a chance to negotiate with the government in the first place.

Proposal 2 has support from numerous Michigan labor unions including the teachers’ union, as well as the Michigan Education Association and the National Education Association.

Proposal 3: A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution to Establish a Standard for Renewable Energy

My position: Yes.

Proposal 3 would require electric companies to provide at least 25% of their electricity from renewable energy sources (defined as wind, solar, biomass, and hydroelectric) by 2025, with some restrictions on how much they can raise prices as a result. Here’s the catch – it would achieve this via a constitutional amendment.

I agree with the Detroit Free Press‘s general assessment: “Almost everything about this plan is admirable except the idea of locking it into the state Constitution.” Clearly, a law would allow for more flexibility than a constitutional amendment, permitting the standards and the definition of “renewable” to be updated in the future. However, is our traditionally conservative legislature going to pass such a law? Probably not.

A constitutional amendment is the wrong way to go about enacting environmental policy, but when the alternative is likely to be inaction, I am grudgingly willing to accept it. Sometimes, doing something good via a poor mechanism is still preferable to never doing it at all.

Proposal 4: A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution to Establish the Michigan Quality Home Care Council and Provide Collective Bargaining for In-Home Care Workers

My position: Yes.

Proposal 4 would guarantee in-home care workers who receive Medicaid stipends collective bargaining rights as public employees. It would also reestablish the Michigan Quality Community Care Council, an organization which was set up by the government in 2004 but defunded this year (although it still receives private funding). This Council would provide some valuable services, including a registry of qualified in-home care workers, which some have argued would make it easier for people to find a care provider when they need one.

Proposal 4 would probably result in some mandatory union dues taken from workers who receive a Medicaid stipend for caring for their own family members, arrangements which admittedly have little to do with the union, but the overall goal of unionizing in-home care workers, whose work is often underappreciated, is worthwhile.

Numerous labor and disability rights organizations support Proposal 4.

This memo provides some more information about the proposal without coming to any definite conclusion about its value. In it, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan raises some legitimate questions about whether a constitutional amendment is the right way to go about setting up collective bargaining rights. However, given my stance that collective bargaining is a fundamental right (see Proposal 2 above), and my stance that constitutional amendments are not off-limits even when legislation would have been a better option (see Proposal 3 above), I support Proposal 4 as well.

Proposal 5: A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution to Limit the Enactment of New Taxes by State Government

My position: No.

Proposal 5 would require a 2/3 majority in both the House and Senate for passage of any bill involving a tax increase of any kind – and it would write this requirement into the state Constitution, making it difficult to undo. If Proposal 5 passes, the government will probably not be able to do much of anything, including funding new programs, funding existing programs which might cost more in the future, or even reforming the tax code by making new tax policies to replace old ones.

Proposals 5 and 6 are the work of people so far to the political right that even Rick Snyder opposes them.

Proposal 6: A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution Regarding Construction of International Bridges and Tunnels

My position: No.

Proposal 6 would require a statewide election to approve any new bridge or tunnel to Canada, including the New International Trade Crossing, a bridge between Detroit and Windsor, which was already approved in June.

Manuel “Matty” Moroun and his family own the Ambassador bridge, currently the only bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor and a serious commercial bottleneck which makes serious money for its private owners. Moroun has a startling amount of sway in Michigan politics and has succeeded in protecting his monopoly at our expense for far too long. He and his cronies are basically the only public figures who support Proposal 6, and that alone is evidence that it is a bad idea for Michigan.

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