Most American workers don't belong to unions.
Union participation across the nation dropped from 32 percent in the 1950s to 11.9 percent last year. Yet, union battles are as intense as ever, with local politicians calling out teachers' unions to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's battle with state workers over a 2011 law limiting their right to enter into collective-bargaining agreements (photo, above). That law was overturned by a Wisconsin county judge in September -- with regard to city, county and school district workers -- but was left intact for state employees.
Michigan is the site of the most recent major labor battle, pitting unions against many large employers. On Tuesday, Michigan residents will vote on a referendum, known as Proposal 2, that would make it a constitutional right for both government and private sector union members to collectively bargain with management through unions.
With 174 ballot measures being put before voters in 38 states on Election Day, Proposal 2 is one that has broad implications for the whole country, experts say.
"The labor movement is trying to find again its political relevancy," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Chaison also said that the proposal represents a "novel strategy" for unions, as it seeks to "link membership to the right of self-organization, which makes it a basic human right as enshrined in the United Nations charter."
No such measure currently exists in the U.S., and the battle over Proposal 2 has become heated. As of the beginning of November, advocates and opponents of the measure have raised a combined $48 million for advertising and other campaign efforts, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network and The Associated Press. And a recent survey sponsored by The Detroit News and TV station WDIV found that 52.5 percent of Michigan voters would vote "no" on the ballot initiative.
Opponents maintain the proposal is a threat to business.
Rich Studley, the president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, told The Hill newspaper the measure would result in "economic development suicide" for the state. His remark was geared toward the proposal's ban on any right-to-work laws.
"right-to-work" laws are already on the books in 23 states, but not including Michigan. Long favored by Republicans, the laws make it illegal for employment contracts to include a requirement for workers to either join a union or pay union dues, both of which are helpful in organizing collective bargaining efforts among workers.
Opponents are going further in their denunciations of the proposal.
"This is a money grab, it's a power grab on the part of organized labor," Studley told The Associated Press.
Indeed, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, released a memo in July, saying that the proposal would impose "breathtaking" limits on how state and local governments would be able to set budgets and employment terms, arguing that labor contracts would override laws already on the books.
But Chaison sees the proposal as on par with the Wisconsin efforts.
The labor movement leaders "are saying, if collective bargaining rights can be limited by measures in state legislatures, then they can also be protected there too," he argues. (Since the 2010 midterm elections, Indiana and Ohio have also passed legislation curtailing workers' rights to form unions and collectively bargain. The measure in Ohio, however, was overturned last year by voters.)
"The labor movement fears legislation imposing a national right-to-work law. And so this proposal is an attempt to pre-empt that," Chaison says.
Advocates of Proposal 2 see the measure as a means to protect workers' rights in negotiating for higher salaries and benefits.
"This isn't your grandfather's Republican party," John Armelagos, vice president of the Michigan Nurses Association, told The Hill. "They are authoritarian. These aren't leave-me-alone types. All we are trying to do here to establish a fair playing field." He went on to emphasize how the drive to pass Proposal 2 was also influenced by measures that have been passed in Michigan since current Gov. Rick Snyder took office in 2010, such as forcing public workers to take on more of their health and retirement costs.
union participation rate of 18.3 percent, just behind New York's 24.1 percent, Alaska's 22.1 percent and Hawaii's 21.5 percent. But the state is nevertheless a smart choice to launch such a campaign, says Chaison, because of its strong union culture dating back to the heyday of the auto industry.
Rich Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, already has expressed a desire to export the proposal to other states if it's approved. And according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Workforce Freedom Initiative, 18 other states allow their state constitutions to be amended by ballot initiatives.
"Ballot measures is something we see every four years," says Chaison. "And you always see measures about physician-assisted suicide, among other issues. But it's very rare to have something that will show where the labor movement is going for the next few decades."
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