By Eric W. Rader
Michigan voters will have a lot to consider when they go to the polls this November. In addition to electing a president, citizens in our state will be choosing a number of other federal, state, and local officials. Additionally, it appears likely that there will be several important citizen initiatives on the Nov. 6 ballot. In the past, such initiatives have sometimes been used for ill purposes in this state. We in the LGBT community were the target of Proposal 2 in 2004, a measure approved by voters that banned marriage equality in Michigan. This amendment has been used to prohibit public employers from granting domestic partner benefits to employees with same-sex partners.
While the constitutional amendment process has sometimes been used for divisive purposes in recent years, it can also be a way to protect individual rights. There are a couple of petition drives underway right now that would place progressive proposals before the voters. Some people believe the state’s constitution should not be used to advance specific policies, since the constitution is the fundamental law of the state. Unfortunately, the political reality in Lansing is not conducive to solid public policy these days. As a result of the 2010 elections, Republicans control the levers of power of all three branches of state government. The legislature is a rubberstamp for Gov. Snyder’s worst ideas. The governor refuses to veto noxious legislation passed by the legislature, and the supposedly nonpartisan Michigan Supreme Court enthusiastically upholds any law passed by the majority Republicans in Lansing, even if the legislation clearly violates the Michigan Constitution. Thus, amending the constitution itself is the only viable option for progressive change at this time in Michigan’s history.
Across the industrial Midwest, collective bargaining rights have been under assault since Republicans swept to power in 2010. Most of the national media has focused its attention on the powerful assaults by Ohio’s and Wisconsin’s governors on the collective bargaining rights of public employees in those states. Citizens in both states have fought back. Last fall, Ohioans repealed the anti-collective bargaining law in that state by an overwhelming margin. Soon, Wisconsin citizens will decide the fate of their polarizing Republican governor, Scott Walker. His facing a recall election in June. With all the media attention on these two states, it’s easy to overlook the decisions Michigan’s “moderate” governor has made regarding employee rights. Since taking office on January 1, 2011, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has signed a series of harsh laws that deny public employees a number of basic labor rights, or seek to make life more complicated for unionized teachers, fire fighters, and police officers. The governor also signed legislation last December that effectively prohibits governments in the state from offering domestic partner benefits to their employees. Though public institutions were not able to specifically offer such benefits to same-sex couples, some institutions found ways to grant them without contravening Michigan’s anti-gay marriage amendment. These employers now have to take back these important benefits from many Michigan families, both gay and straight, thanks to the rabid partisans in Lansing. Gov. Snyder, who talks frequently of “relentless positive action” and ending divisiveness in our state, has only served to further divide us, pitting Michiganders against each other in a cynical effort to undermine his political opposition.
One of the petition drives underway right now in Michigan would place a measure before the voters that, if approved, would guarantee the right of all employees in the state to bargain collectively with their employer. This is an effort to place a provision in the Michigan Constitution to guarantee a basic right of democracy — if a majority of workers want to band together to protect themselves, they should be allowed to do so. The measure says nothing about the specifics of collective bargaining agreements, and would not require workers to bargain collectively if they do not wish to do so.
If such a right were protected in the Michigan Constitution, the LGBT community would have a lot to gain. No longer would our basic civil rights at work be subject to the vagaries of election results and the whims of elected officials. If workers want to negotiate important benefits or anything else with their employer, no governor would be able to sign a bill telling them they can’t do it. Collective bargaining means just that — two sides sit down together to hammer out a mutually agreeable labor agreement. Neither side in a labor agreement should be able force the other to do something that is contrary to their interest, but right now, the Republican leaders in Lansing have the upper hand and want to deny workers any right to bargain with their employer. The proposed constitutional amendment would restore balance to the democratic process in Michigan. This is something we should all welcome and support.