Update: Union recertification bill dies in Michigan's lame-duck
Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
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Workers in public employee unions would be required to vote every two years on whether they want their union to continue to represent them under a bill sponsored by the Republican state Senate leader.
Senate Bill 1260, introduced Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, was voted out of committee early Wednesday morning by a party-line vote. It hasn’t yet been scheduled for a vote in the full Senate.
“This is about democracy and it's about giving public (union) employees a choice and a voice in who represents them at work,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a market-oriented think tank based in Midland.
As many as 250,000 workers statewide may be represented by public unions, based on federal data, and labor groups on Wednesday decried the measure as anti-union. Under the bill, unions would have to cover costs of the election — and the names of all members eligible to vote would be published online before recertification votes.
“Our union considers it a direct affront to our ability to exercise our rights,” said Julie Rowe, legislative mobilization coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, which represents more than 30,000 teachers in the state.
“I am not worried about members trying to choose to join together in a union and collectively bargain,” Rowe told Bridge. “I’m concerned about the Legislature’s attempt to make that more difficult for them every step of the way.”
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, introduced a bill that would require public employee unions to hold biennial recertification votes in order to continue representing workers. (Courtesy photo)
The bill also includes a $500,000 appropriation, which would make it immune to a citizen referendum.
The bill from Meekhof, R-West Olive, follows efforts by conservative interest groups to influence policy in Republican-held, lame-duck state legislatures, and it strongly resembles a model policy finalized in September by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative organization that creates model policies for state lawmakers around free-market ideas. The group has ties to the billionaires Charles and David Koch.
Union recertification reportedly is one of several model bills that would impact union powers that ALEC is advocating for in the states, according to a recent story in Governing magazine.
A message seeking comment was left for ALEC on Wednesday.
Meekhof spokeswoman Amber McCann downplayed the connection, saying the bill is one of the last items on his to-do list before he is termed out of office this month.
“I know that there are popular movements around the country from conservative entities to push some of these legislative options, but Senator Meekhof has been interested in it for a long time and was not influenced by any one entity, but rather just his own ideology,” she said.
She pointed out that national liberal groups also have tried to influence Michigan policy, referring to Washington, D.C.-based liberal organizations that backed citizen-initiated laws to require paid sick leave and increase Michigan’s minimum wage.
The bill would amend Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act of 1947, which spells out collective bargaining rights for public employees. The bill would require public employees who work for entities represented by labor unions to vote every two years, starting in 2022, on whether they want that union to continue to represent them.
The existing union would be allowed to continue representing workers if the vote tally reflects a majority of the votes cast, and that majority also “represents at least 50% of the public employees in the unit,” according to the bill language.
If it doesn’t, the union no longer would represent the employees, though an existing contract would continue to be honored until it expires — with the exception of provisions allowing such union duties as handling grievances.
Some details about the bill weren’t immediately clear Wednesday, including whether it would require all union locals to recertify. It’s not uncommon for school districts, for instance, to have five or more locals apiece.
The 50 percent majority required to recertify a union would come from all workers represented by the bargaining unit — not just those who are dues-paying members, said McCann, Meekhof's spokeswoman, and Nick Ciaramitaro, legislation and public policy director for AFSCME Michigan.
Supporters of the legislation say it would give workers a greater voice in representation. Now, in order to challenge an already-existing bargaining unit, a majority of members must call for a certification vote.
That’s a tall order, said Vernuccio, the Mackinac Center fellow.
“They are up against a well-financed, highly experienced union,” he said.
Union leaders told Bridge they believe the legislation is an attempt to distract union workers from participating in the electoral process, since the elections would be held over a weeklong period between August and November in even-numbered years. That inevitably would coincide with statewide primary and general elections.
“It just keeps people busy, and therefore keeps them out of the public sphere, because I think that’s the real motivation,” said Ciaramitaro of AFSCME.
"The members of this Legislature — which is not accountable to anybody anymore because most of them are term-limited or out of office at the end of the year — don’t like the way certain people are voting and want to distract them from participating in the electoral process,” he said.
McCann, Meekhof’s spokeswoman, said the bill would not stop a union from recruiting members or asserting itself politically: “The only reason it would hinder their political power is if they’re already not serving their membership well.”
Meekhof’s bill is supported by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Midland-based free-market think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Americans for Prosperity and the Michigan Freedom Fund.
Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.