JACK SPENCER: Proposal poses a risk vs reward choice for RTW supporters

Right-to-Work advocates might not be of one mind egarding the prospective ballot proposal called, “Protect Our Jobs.” None of them want to see the proposal passed, but many could be rooting for it to get on the statewide ballot so it can be defeated.

In a RTW state, employers are prohibited from entering into contracts that require employees to financially contribute to unions as a condition of employment.

If passed, the “Protect Our Jobs” proposal would constitutionally prohibit Michigan from ever becoming a RTW state. In addition, the proposal would write union collective bargaining advantages right into the State Constitution.

These are some of the same advantages unions lost in 2011 when Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP legislature passed a reform agenda.

As expected, the unions successfully gathered enough signatures to put the “Protect Our Jobs” proposal on the ballot. However, a coalition of business groups could go to court to try to keep it off the ballot. If so, their likely argument would be that the proposal would amend the Constitution in too many ways.

Courts have ruled in the past that voters shouldn’t be faced with proposals that make multiple changes to the State Constitution. At issue is the fact that such proposals could make a change with which voters might agree while at the same time making a change with which they might disagree.

Consider the problems with such proposals. Which change should be described at the beginning of the ballot language?

If the more popular change is described first – the ballot language would be slanted toward passage. If a less popular change is described first, the ballot language would be slanted toward voter rejection.

For RTW supporters the prospect of the “Protect Our Jobs” proposal possibly getting knocked off the ballot by the courts is a two-edged sword.

Preventing the proposal from going before the voters would assure that it wouldn’t get passed. On the other hand; not having it on the ballot would take away the opportunity to have the voters reject it.

It’s believed by many that, if voters defeat the proposal in November, the pressure on Michigan lawmakers to pass a RTW law would become overwhelming. That’s the scenario RTW supporters would consider ideal. However, if the proposal gets on the ballot there’s always a chance that it would pass.

For RTW supporters that would be a nightmare.

So, should they hope the courts shove the proposal safely aside or hope for the higher risk-reward dynamic of leaving it up to the voters? This is not an easy question to answer.

Battle of definitions

If the “Protect Our Jobs” proposal does get on the ballot it will be interesting to see how both sides try to define it.

Backers of the “Protect Our Jobs” proposal say it would make collective bargaining a constitutional right. However, when it was originally announced, union leaders referred to it as a proposal to prevent Michigan from becoming a RTW state.

Ironically, neither RTW nor the reforms passed by Sate lawmakers last year prohibit employees from bargaining collectively. That’s one reason opponents of the “Protect Our Jobs” proposal say it’s not really about making collective bargaining a constitutional right, it’s just a union power grab.

Polls show that a solid majority of voters support Michigan becoming a RTW state. But at this point it’s not clear whether opponents of the “Protect Our Jobs” proposal will call it an anti-Right-to-Work proposal. Apparently they have a menu of possible definitions from which to choose and have yet to make a selection.

Polling also shows that voters tend to support the idea that employees have a “right” to bargain collectively. However, the unions could have reasons to be concerned about relying on a “protect collective bargaining rights” message.

Wisconsin was ground zero for a very similar “unions versus reform” battle from February 2011 to June, 2012.

Initially, unions said they needed to “protect collective bargaining rights” they claimed had been attacked by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislature. But long before the time of the Walker recall election last month, the unions had stopped using the “protect collective bargaining rights” rhetoric.

Why did the unions change their rhetoric? Obviously, because polling showed it wasn’t working. Apparently, after hearing more details about what the fight was really about, Wisconsin voters rejected the “protecting collective bargaining rights” argument.

That said, the situation in Michigan could be different. The “Protect Our Jobs” proposal campaign only has to stay on message three and a half months – not a year and a half, as was the case in Wisconsin. So, maybe there’s a chance that the “protect collective bargaining rights” rhetoric would be effective here.

Then again, maybe not. It seems probable that most likely-voters in Michigan were at least moderately in-tune to what took place in Wisconsin. How might that affect the “Protect Our Jobs” proposal campaign? It could mean that the “protect collective bargaining rights” rhetoric has already acquired “loser” status in Michigan.

Currently, only those on the inside of the proposal campaigns know the answers – and even they might not be sure yet either.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.

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Posted by Jack Spencer

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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