Michigan voters to decide bevy of ballot proposals

DETROIT -- Michigan voters will decide next week on a labor-backed ballot proposal that would strengthen municipal workers' union rights, even as some deficit-plagued cities look to cut pay and other benefits negotiated through collective bargaining.

Proposal 2 is one of six referendums to be decided Nov. 6, and one of five that ask voters whether to amend the state constitution.

If approved, the proposal would ban Michigan from enacting right-to-work laws _ which limit unions' ability to collect fees from nonunion workers _ and would roll back many of the changes GOP lawmakers have made in public employees' benefits, including requiring additional pension contributions and replacing retiree health insurance for new employees with a 401(k)-style systems.

The proposal also would give public and private workers in Michigan the constitutional right to unionize and reach contracts through collective bargaining. Opponents are particularly concerned about a provision stating that any current or future law would be invalidated if they limit workers' ability to unionize and bargain as a group.

For Eric Weber, a 16-year veteran of the Lansing Fire Department, the proposal is simply about protecting wages, benefits and work rules for municipal employees. Weber said he's used wage increases bargained into his union's last contract to cover higher health care and benefits costs.

"Without collective bargaining it would be collective begging," the 37-year-old said. "I work a second job. I want a piece of the American pie."

Lansing, which faces a projected budget deficit of $11 million in the next fiscal year primarily due to declining tax revenue and increases in pension, health care and workers' wages, has had to cut the number of city workers during the past few years. Mayor Virg Bernero has said "everything is on the table" when it comes to additional budget cuts. In Detroit, Mayor Dave Bing has bypassed union negotiations to institute a 10 percent pay cut for city employees and various work rule changes to help save money.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder opposes both Proposal 2 and Proposal 4, another union-backed measure that would allow the state to collect union dues from home health care workers. But he has said he does not plan to push a right-to-work law in Michigan.

Still, labor groups point to the actions of Michigan's GOP-led Legislature, and recent blows suffered in several other Rust Belt states. Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed right-to-work legislation there in February. And Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall challenge following his efforts to limit collective bargaining rights for most public workers.

Michigan's ballot proposal is backed by a group called Protect Our Jobs, whose major donors include the United Auto Workers Solidarity House, Michigan Education Association and the Teamsters, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Nick De Leeuw, spokesman for Hands Off Our Constitution, a group that opposes the measure, said Michigan is almost a test case for such a statewide ballot measure.

"You can infer that if they are successful here in Michigan, they'll set their sights on other states," De Leeuw said.

Of the remaining referendums on next Tuesday's ballot, Snyder supports only Proposal 1, which would keep the state's sweeping emergency manager law on the books. The law allows the state to appoint managers for municipalities and school districts deemed to be in fiscal emergencies, and those managers have the authority to dismiss local elected leaders and tear up union contracts.

Supporters of the law, and Proposal 1, argue the state must be allowed to step in to help fix financially struggling entities. Critics argue the law represents a state power grab that usurps local elected officials, and the proposal is opposed by a union-backed group called Stand Up for Democracy.

Emergency managers are operating in Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac, Allen Park and Ecorse, as well as in school districts in Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights. The city of Detroit, struggling with record deficits for years, narrowly avoided such a takeover earlier this year but has entered into a so-called consent agreement with the state that's provided for under state law.

The remaining ballot issues include:

_ Proposal 3, which would amend the state constitution to require utilities to provide at least a quarter of electricity retail sales from wind, solar, biomass or hydropower sources by 2025.

_ Proposal 5, which would amend the state constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote in the Michigan House and Senate _ or a vote by Michigan residents _ in order to raise or levy new state taxes, or to increase the tax base or tax rate.

_ Proposal 6, which would give Michigan voters the final say on any new international border crossing with Canada. It pits the state against the Detroit International Bridge Co. that operates the private Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. The company is trying to stop the state from working with Canada on a competing commuter crossing over the Detroit River.