Mich. labor leaders defend bargaining initiative


DETROIT (AP) — Organized labor leaders in Michigan said Wednesday they had no regrets about their unsuccessful push to add a guarantee of collective bargaining rights to the state constitution and accused opponents of confusing voters with deceptive advertising.

"This is a fight we had to have," said John Karebian, executive director of the Michigan Nurses Association.

He and other union officials said they had no other choice, with Republican lawmakers chipping away at bargaining powers over the past two years and a potentially bloody battle over right-to-work legislation on the horizon.

The ballot measure was soundly rejected in Tuesday's election, 58 percent to 42 percent. It was among five proposed constitutional amendments that failed, with many voters saying the state's founding document was the wrong place for such policy issues.

Labor leaders said in a phone conference with reporters that voter support for collective bargaining rights remains strong. The outcome wasn't a repudiation of organized labor but a reaction to doubts about the measure sown by business-supported opposition groups, they said.

After insisting on a "very misleading" summary of the measure for the ballot, "corporate special interests launched a massive campaign of lies" warning it would repeal dozens of laws, including those designed to keep convicted criminals and sexual predators out of classrooms, said Andrew Nickelhoff, attorney for the coalition that promoted the initiative.

"The opposition never spoke ill of the concept of collective bargaining," campaign strategist Jill Alper said. "They just went about making a series of arguments about the initiative, maneuvering things in a way that ... created confusion."

Nick DeLeeuw, spokesman for a group called Citizens Protecting Michigan's Constitution that fought the initiative, scoffed at the idea that voters were misled or unclear about the measure. He said union leaders were making excuses for wasting millions in union dues on a doomed effort.

"They gained absolutely nothing for their members," DeLeeuw said. "They burned their money. It was divisive; it didn't have to happen. ... It's insulting to their own members who voted 'no' and to Michigan voters who voted 'no' to suggest that they would be confused after the most expensive ballot campaign in history. The voters knew exactly what this is about and they voted no."

Gov. Rick Snyder said Wednesday the ballot initiative was "a massive overreach."

"It's very positive that it was defeated," Snyder said. "I still believe in collective bargaining, and I look forward to collective bargaining with state employees. As contracts come up, I'll be happy to go back to the table."

Even in defeat, the campaign was good for labor by galvanizing the rank-and-file and uniting the movement for the future, said Karla Swift, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

"Just because we were unable to put it in the constitution doesn't mean we will stop the fight to protect the fundamental rights of working people," Swift said.

There was a silver lining for labor, said Bernie Porn, a pollster with Lansing-based EPIC-MRI. Distaste for the five proposed constitutional amendments might also have influenced the vote on a new law giving emergency managers authority to toss out labor contracts in financially distressed cities, which also was defeated.

"I'm not sure that people really distinguished between the referendum on emergency managers and the other measures," Porn said. "There was such a blanket 'don't mess with the constitution' message out there."