Opinion | Please, Michigan Supreme Court, restore public will on minimum wage

Maria Van Core

Maria Van Core is president of the Greater Lansing Chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement

As a proposal to boost the federal minimum wage finally finds its way into Congress, Michigan elected officials too have an opportunity to bring income fairness to our state’s residents while at the same time upholding the state constitution.

The opportunity came Wednesday, when the Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments about why the Legislature’s action late last year to set aside the aim of a citizen petition drive for higher minimum wages was a constitutional violation.

Background: Organizers of the One Fair Wage campaign last year submitted more than 400,000 signatures, certified by the state as enough for the November ballot, on a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $12. But instead of placing the measure before voters, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed amendments that pushed the $12 wage out another eight years and kept tipped workers at a substandard wage that will grow only to a pitiful $4.58 an hour.

Related: Michigan Supreme Court hears debate on minimum wage, sick leave laws

Legal and other scholars argue this action was in direct violation of our state’s constitution, and I’m hoping that our state’s justices will concur. The constitution says: “Any law proposed by initiative petition shall be either enacted or rejected by the Legislature without change or amendment within 40 session days from the time such petition is received by the Legislature.”

Among those who previously addressed this issue is former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, who wrote that enacting and amending a law proposed by initiated petition in the same legislative session violates the constitution’s spirit.

Not only did the Legislature amend, it did so under the guise of support for working families. But as it reduced the wage hike and increased the time it took to get better pay, it engaged in a cynical ploy to undermine the will of the people who signed petitions. It subverted the democratic process by blocking a means of citizens enacting laws by initiative efforts.

We demand and deserve better from those who took on the role of serving the public.

The state’s highest court may issue an advisory opinion. It could expedite getting 1 million workers to a livable wage that allows them to take care of their families. And it could remind our elected leaders about the oaths they took to respect and uphold the rules by which we all have to live.

In the words of Robert Kennedy, “The glory of justice and the majesty of law are created not just by the Constitution – nor by the courts – nor by the officers of the law – nor by the lawyers – but by the men and women who constitute our society, who are the protectors of the law as they are themselves protected by the law.”

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Kathi Geukes
Thu, 07/18/2019 - 9:18am

Please don't make Michigan the only state that underpays its employees!!

Susan Onan-Swartz
Thu, 07/18/2019 - 10:34am

Just hiking the minimum wage is actually going to create more poverty. How? Home care services for one thing, are tied to federal and state funds. In our industry, we have not receive a rate increase since 2007. At that time out staff were paid 38 % above minimum wage. We have received two state pass through wage increases that apply to hours work through a CMH contract, which can expire or be revoked. Staff, with the pass through, are making 13% above the minimum wage. If you raise it again, you will be reducing skilled staff to the same level of earning as an entry level worker.
Private sector companies pass on the increase expense to consumers so your fast food, groceries, gas, products, they all go up. But health care and human services do not. Community Mental Health, Medicaid, insurance companies, governmental units are not going to be paying providers a penny more. So more people will leave this field. In Traverse City, a major service home care provider just closed because we cannot even break even. At BrickWays, we depend on donor support to cover the gap between what it costs to provide quality service and what we get paid. Annually that gap is about $80,000. As a non profit we continue to provide the service but if we were in it to make money, we would not stay in this business. Additionally, our employees need to take care of their families. They love what they do but they need to pay their bills too. Quality workers will move on and then who takes their place? Assuming a company decides to continue providing services to the elderly, disabled or ill, they are faced with increased costs of staff turnover, training, wages.
We have been cutting benefits, administration, supplies, vehicles, postage, anything and everything for 12 years. I agree that families cannot make ends meet and we do need to do more. Have we considered expanding child care and educational trade school options such as free or greatly reduced tuition for those who are willing to work to improve their situation. We need skilled trades. Give people more opportunity and let people who are willing to work to achieve financial success, have a path to accomplish it. I do not have the answer but a knee jerk reaction should not be the only option.

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 1:07pm

The author is concerned about the impact the minimum wage initiative would have had if enacted, but that is not the issue the Michigan Supreme Court is considering. The issue is whether the legislature can enact the bill proposed in initiative petitions and then gut it.
"All political power is inherent in the people." This language appeared in Michigan's first constitution, enacted in 1835 as part of the process of applying for statehood, and is the very first sentence of our current constitution.
The power of the people to initiate legislation was first included in the 1908 Constitution, and is currently found in Article II, section 9 of the 1963 Constitution: "The people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and to enact and reject laws, called the initiative, and the power to approve or reject laws enacted by the legislature, called the referendum." The powers of the legislature are found later in the Constitution, in Article IV. This reinforces the principle that political power, including the power to legislate, is inherent in the people.
The author concludes by arguing that "a knee jerk reaction should not be the only option" to dealing with the minimum wage issue. Precisely. The knee jerk reaction, however, was the legislature's cynical vote to enact the initiative while making it clear that it intended to gut it later on. By taking away the people's ability to have the final say on the issue, the legislature not only thwarted the intent of the hundreds of thousands of citizens who signed the petitions; it also prevented the citizens of Michigan from having a full debate on the minimum wage proposal and then exercising their inherent political power and voting on whether to enact it.
The Supreme Court should honor both the letter and spirit of our Constitution and hold that a legislature that has enacted legislation proposed in an initiative petition has no power to then modify or amend that that legislation during the remainder of its term.

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 11:35am

I understand what you're saying about the provisions in the Constitution. However a direct democracy is not the best way, it's one reason we have a representative republic. "The people" are not always the best informed about all the ramifications of a ballot initiative.

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 1:30pm

Agreed, Susan. People who have never been personally responsible for the money in a paycheck they sign are always for a wage increase. If it's such a great thing why haven't the last 6 increases helped? Because raising the minimum wage is inflationary. All prices go up. Soon, $15/hour has no more buying power than $10/hour. Oh! Tie annual minimum wage increases to the rate of inflation. Great. More increase of prices which cause a higher rate of inflation which..... it's a vicious cycle that helps no one.

Sun, 07/21/2019 - 5:24pm

People earning the lowest wages deserve better. Inflation has been around 2% for years, and if anything is going to increase prices, it will be these trade wars. Management and executive salaries have skyrocketed. The current tax bill has done next to nothing for low to middle income earners. As a CPA, I am appalled by this tax bill. We need to do SO much more for those who struggle to make ends meet. Let's face it, this lame duck move was SLEAZY.