Michigan Right-to-Work backers plot ballot proposal as Dems pursue repeal
- Michigan business groups, activists and donors in early talks over potential ballot measure to preserve Right-to-Work
- Legislative Democrats currently working to repeal the 2012 law
- Possible constitutional amendment would trump legislation
LANSING — As Democrats move to repeal Michigan’s Right-to-Work law, Republican activists and business groups are already plotting a potential 2024 ballot initiative to protect the policy by enshrining it in the state constitution.
Those involved in the discussions say talk of a possible petition drive and ballot proposal are only preliminary, and no funds have been raised or spent yet on what would surely be an expensive fight.
But the conversations are “real” and include some of the same donors who helped defeat a union-backed ballot proposal in 2012, said former state House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican who helped steer Right-to-Work legislation that year and is now a policy advisor for the West Michigan Policy Forum.
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Bolger and other supporters contend Right-to-Work would be a winning issue with statewide voters — and one that could benefit Republican candidates on the ballot by motivating the return of big money donors who have limited their giving in recent years because of frustration with the Michigan GOP.
“Ironically, repeal of Right-to-Work might be the thing that saves the Republican Party,” said Brian Calley, who is president of the Small Business Association of Michigan and served as lieutenant governor in 2012 when Republicans approved the law over union protests.
“I think that efforts to put together a ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment is fairly likely,” Calley said.
As Gongwer subscription news service reported Wednesday, nascent ballot proposal talks heated up this week as House Democrats announced plans to take up legislation to repeal Right-to-Work, which prohibits labor contracts that make union dues or bargaining fees a condition of employment.
Arguing repeal would benefit workers by strengthening union bargaining power, House Democrats on Wednesday approved the bills in 56-53 votes despite uniform Republican opposition. The package now heads to the Democratic-led Senate, which could take up the legislation as early as next week.
The repeal would only impact private employers, like automakers and manufacturers, because the Supreme Court in 2018 prohibited mandatory union fees at public sector employers, like schools and governments.
Business groups, who contend Right-to-Work has helped the economy by making Michigan more attractive to job seekers, had already been discussing how they might respond to legislative repeal, Calley told Bridge Michigan.
Those talks “went from hypothetical to real in about 24 hours,” when House Democrats on Tuesday signaled they would take up the legislation, he said. “So now… those ‘what if’ discussions become ‘what now’ discussions.”
Bolger, whose west Michigan business group includes powerful figures like Doug DeVos and J.C. Huizenga, was part of what he called a “volunteer” team that this week circulated a memo to donors and activists raising the specter of a petition drive if and when Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the Right-to-Work repeal.
“While there is always an appetite to make important public policy invulnerable to legislative repeal and the shifting political winds, the timing of a Right-to-Work constitutional amendment could be ripe in Michigan,” read the memo, obtained by Bridge.
The three-page document pointed to Tennessee, a more conservative state where voters last year overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to protect Right-to-Work in their state constitution.
A petition drive and ballot proposal could set up a high-profile fight between Michigan business groups and unions, who have urged Democrats to repeal Right-to-Work and praised Wednesday’s approval by the House.
Aaron Pelo, spokesperson for the Michigan AFL-CIO, said union members are confident that Michigan voters would reject a 2024 ballot measure after last year voting in a “pro-labor” Democratic “trifecta” now working to repeal the law in Lansing.
“That’s why you are seeing the Legislature take quick actions to get these bills done to restore worker freedom,” he said.
He noted that some proposed ballot measures championed by the “mega rich” failed to obtain enough signatures to make the ballot last year, including petition drives to tighten election regulations and to establish donor-funded scholarships for private school tuition.
The AFL-CIO “will certainly be doing everything it takes to defend workers’ freedom, to bargain for the good wages, benefits and the safe workplaces they deserve,” Pelo said.
While partisan politicians, unions and business groups are battling over Right-to-Work, a recent Michigan poll suggests many voters don’t have strong opinions about the decade-old policy.
The December survey by Glengariff Group Inc. showed 29 percent of voters supported Democratic efforts to overturn the law, 22 percent were opposed and 50 percent were either neutral or undecided.
The Right-to-Work repeal legislation, as amended Wednesday in the Michigan House, includes $2 million that Democrats say is designed to educate the public and businesses about the planned labor law changes.
But the money would also prevent a future ballot initiative to overturn the repeal because the Michigan Constitution prohibits referendums on laws with appropriations. Whitmer blasted previous GOP attempts to make bills referendum-proof as a form of legislative “abuse” and vowed she would use her veto pen to prevent the practice.
But even if Whitmer signed referendum-proof legislation, an amendment to the Michigan Constitution would trump any Democratic repeal law and preserve Right-to-Work indefinitely.
Putting a proposal for a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot would require more than 450,000 valid voter signatures. And it would be the latest front in a right-to-work battle that has raged for more than a decade.
Michigan unions, led by then-United Auto Workers President Bob King, attempted to pre-empt a Right-to-Work push with a 2012 ballot proposal that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution.
The ballot battle ended with a stinging defeat for union backers, however. The measure failed by 14 percentage points, with opposition from 57 percent of voters and support from 43 percent.
Supporters and opponents — including business groups and the DeVos family of west Michigan — combined to spend more than $45 million on the ballot fight, which at the time was the most expensive in state history.
Then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, had initially resisted Right-to-Work legislation. But supporters say the union-led ballot fight prompted him to reconsider. Less than a month after the 2012 election, Snyder signed legislation to make Michigan a Right-to-Work state.
Bolger, who is closely involved in talks about a potential 2024 ballot initiative, said he’s optimistic that conservative donors would support the effort even if they have been increasingly reluctant to fund the Michigan Republican Party.
“This could be someplace that those traditional donors go,” he said.
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