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National unions and Chamber of Commerce face off in Michigan

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Thousands of protesters rallied at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, Mich., during the spring of 2012 to oppose Gov. Rick Snyder's policies.

Al Goldis/AP

After two bruising years for organized labor in the Midwest, the movement has managed to land two pro-union measures on the November ballot in Michigan.

Michigan locals and their national leaders now face an ad campaign by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and its friends, urging voters to resist “D.C. union bosses.” Unions, however, have far outraised their detractors, bringing in a quarter of the $30 million total raised for the state’s six ballot initiatives, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Labor wants to repeal Gov. Rick Snyder’s landmark emergency manager law, which has been a bane to public sector unions, and to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution to stave off future attacks.

Efforts to curtail union rights “really did spike” since the GOP swept into power in 20 more state legislative houses in 2010, said Jeanne Mejeur, labor expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Last year we saw about 950 [labor-related] bills nationwide, compared to about 100 a year over the last 10 years.”

What happens in Michigan may be an even greater measure of the labor movement’s influence than its unsuccessful attempt to remove union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from office earlier this year.

“The eyes of the nation will be on Michigan in November,” said Chris Fleming, a national spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Washington, D.C. “If there’s a chance to enshrine collective bargaining in any state, we will be there to support it.”

Unions in the region, a traditional stronghold, can use the help. In just two years, labor has been battered by the failed recall effort in Wisconsin and an anti-union right-to-work law in Indiana.

Right-to-work laws have stifled union membership in 23 states, mostly in the South. They allow individual employees at organized workplaces to forego membership in, and dues to, the unions that represent them.

Michigan unions have also fought Snyder’s emergency manager law, which has effectively ended collective bargaining rights for public employees in several cities. The Republican-majority Legislature, meanwhile, has passed a slew of anti-union laws chipping away at bargaining rights.

“It’s been death by a thousand cuts,” said Dan Lijana, a spokesman for the Michigan-based union coalition Protect our Jobs.

Ballot lines drawn

The state’s Protect our Jobs initiative has raised at least $8 million, more than a quarter of it from out-of-state unions, to amend the state’s constitution and guarantee collective bargaining rights for all Michigan workers in the future. A victory would produce the first state constitutional amendment in the nation with such strong pro-labor provisions.

“I hope it sets a nationwide model,” said Larry Roehrig, a leader of AFSCME’s Michigan affiliate.

If voters approve the measure, it would effectively prohibit passage of a right-to-work law in the state and overturn other laws that limit collective bargaining, including a key provision in Snyder’s emergency manager law.

In the past year alone, 16 new states have proposed bills similar to right-to-work laws, according to Mejeur.

“We’re not just going to wait for them to cut our throat,” said Roehrig. “If they get their way, they’ll crush the middle class.”

National unions have invested heavily in the effort: $1.25 million from the Washington, D.C.-based AFL-CIO State Unity Fund; $500,000 from AFSCME; $333,000 from the Teamsters; $125,000 from National Nurses United and $100,000 from New York-based hospitality union UNITE HERE.

The D.C.-based United Food and Commercial Workers chipped in $50,000 and the International Association of Firefighters sent along $33,000 to the Michigan effort.

While national unions have helped considerably, state-based unions including auto workers, teachers, carpenters, electrical workers, nurses and professors have all given big money. The United Auto Workers dropped $1 million into the campaign and the Michigan Education Association — the state’s largest union — gave $500,000.

The giant fundraising effort has paid for three television ads blanketing the state. The group’s first ad, released in August, features a 5th-grade teacher from a school in suburban Detroit. Cutting against the critiques that collective bargaining serves a small fraction of the state’s residents at the expense of everyone else, teacher Karen Kuciel argues that collective bargaining rights allow teachers to bargain over things like class size.

“Collective bargaining helps our kids,” she says in the ad.

Stiff opposition

The business community, free-market think tanks and the Snyder administration say the constitutional amendment will only benefit the unions.

The primary opposition to the amendment has come from the state’s Chamber of Commerce — despite its lack of a formal stance on right-to-work law in the state.

The governor’s office says it is in favor of collective bargaining and unions, but the ballot initiative “goes too far.”

In legal battles over the initiative, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette and Snyder filed a brief against it — a rare move for a sitting governor.

Schuette, elected in 2010 with support from the state’s wealthiest executives and real estate and banking PACs, released a memo criticizing the “trojan horse-style” proposal that would “abrogate in whole or in part more than 170 Michigan laws.”

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has given at least $130,000 to a ballot committee called Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which has led the opposition. The committee shares a Lansing address with the Chamber.

The fund also has also added $30,000 sums from the Detroit and Grand Rapids chambers of commerce, the Michigan Manufacturers Association, the Association of Builders and Contractors, and Business Leaders for Michigan, which raises money from the state’s top executives.

Chamber CEO Richard Studley told a Michigan radio station in June that the proposal is “a dangerous distraction at a time when business and labor and Democrats and Republicans should be working together to move our state forward.”

Despite substantial support from Michigan’s business elite, the group has raised $345,000 — only a fraction of the pro-union Protect our Jobs' haul.

The state’s Supreme Court overruled objections by the governor and the measure’s opponents in early September, clearing the way for the bargaining rights initiative.

The Chamber-funded group, meanwhile, has taken to the airwaves, launching ads warning voters that the state’s constitution is being auctioned off to “wealthy interest groups trying to grab more money and power.”

“The claim being made by the other side is more applicable to the folks funding their campaign,” said Protect our Jobs’ Lijana.

He notes that a statewide campaign to collect more than a half-million signatures represents the level of “grassroots enthusiasm” for the ballot initiative.

A second group opposing the constitutional amendment called Protecting Michigan Taxpayers cropped up June 11 and a month later bought $1 million worth of TV, radio, and online ads in the state blaming “Washington union bosses” for “tinkering with our constitution.”

Its campaign finance filings are signed by Jared Rodriguez, former senior vice president of the west-Michigan Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

Rodriguez is also the current president of the West Michigan Policy Forum, a clearinghouse for business leaders funded by chambers of commerce from around the state. His 2010 op-ed in a Michigan paper touted the Policy Forum’s resolution to endorse the anti-union right-to-work law, and undo labor laws that have “discouraged businesses from investing in Michigan.”

Repealing emergency law

Thanks to union mobilization, Michigan voters will also decide whether to repeal Snyder’s Public Act 4, the emergency manager law described as the “emergency dictator” law by labor leaders.

A union-funded group called Stand up for Democracy raised $184,000, almost entirely from the public employees union AFSCME, which it used to fund field staff, collect signatures, and fight an ensuing legal battle to place the measure on the ballot.

In August, the state Supreme Court approved the ballot measure, suspending the law until the election, and sparking a renewed power struggle in four cities and three school districts that were being run by state-appointed managers.

A state ballot committee called Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility led the legal challenge to the Public Act 4 repeal effort, claiming that the petitions used had a font size that did not comply with state regulations. The group is run by John Llewellyn, vice president of government relations at the Michigan Bankers Association.

State filings show the group was funded entirely by a shadowy nonprofit organization run by three state GOP operatives. One is Rob Macomber, who was state director of Mitt Romney’s primary campaign in Michigan. The other two, Steve Linder and Jeffrey Timmer, are partners at a Michigan-based Republican public relations firm called the Sterling Corp.

Timmer also sat on the state’s Board of Canvassers, and cast one of the two votes halting the emergency manager repeal effort when it came before the board for approval in April.

Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility plans to take the fight outside the courtroom and onto the airwaves — though the group has yet to launch ads opposing the repeal effort. The funders of this effort are not disclosed the public.

“I won’t be sharing a list of donors,” said Llewelyn.

Cities up for grabs

When Snyder’s emergency law was frozen in place, city officials wasted no time going after emergency managers in the wake of the decision. Members of the Flint and Pontiac city councils and the Detroit school board held meetings and attempted to reclaim their elected office and decision-making powers.

Attorney General Schuette released a legal opinion saying the state would revert to an older, less expansive emergency law called Public Act 72, even though Public Act 4 expressly repeals that older law.

Snyder’s administration quickly re-appointed managers in Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor, and appointed a new manager in Flint, all with fewer powers under the state’s older emergency law. The move came amid protests in Pontiac, Flint, and Detroit.

Detroit’s elected school board has resumed meetings, claiming that Emergency Manager Roy Roberts no longer has power. Roberts used that sweeping power to impose terms on the teachers union in July. The contract raises class size limits dramatically, and kept a 10 percent pay cut in place.

The Pontiac City Council voted in late August to dismiss emergency manager Louis Schimmel, overriding a veto by Mayor Leon Jukowski. Schimmel, a former advisor to Michigan’s leading free-market think tank, the Mackinac Center, shrugged off the vote, claiming that he retained power under the state’s earlier law.

Local media outlets report that Schimmel plans to sell the city’s golf course, privatize its public works department, and get voters to approve a tax hike in November, but he’s already dissolved the city’s fire and police departments and put a large chunk of the city’s real estate portfolio, including libraries, up for sale.

“I’ve done most of the work I needed to do under Public Act 4,” Schimmel told The Oakland Press in August.

The state’s unions have claimed a victory just by landing the initiatives on the ballot. The next phase will play out on the airwaves, as Chamber-backed groups accuse D.C.-based unions of pushing a “special interest” agenda on the rest of Michigan voters.

“Our checking account happens to be in D.C.,” says AFSCME’s Roehrig, “but the union is from every city in America.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, Protect our Jobs has ads of its own reserved in major media markets in Michigan, contrasting the needs of everyday union teachers with the state’s “corporate special interests.”

Says Lijana, “This battle is not going to go away.”