TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Flanked by grim-faced police officers, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette stares into the television camera and warns that putting collective bargaining rights into the state constitution would endanger laws that protect public safety.
"It will put people at unnecessary risk," one officer adds. "It'll tie our hands," another says. "Proposal 2 is dangerous."
But in a commercial sponsored by supporters of the proposed measure, other lawmen insist it would make children safer. Opponents are "lying about collective bargaining," Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon says.
The volley over whether the ballot initiative known as Proposal 2 would make it easier for problem drinkers or sexual predators to wind up in classrooms is one of many competing claims fired back and forth during a fierce campaign.
The measure would guarantee workers in the public and private sectors the right to organize and bargain collectively with management. It would appear to rule out right-to-work legislation cherished by conservatives, which would prohibit making union membership or payment of dues conditions of employment. Michigan is among 27 states without such laws.
But with the election just days away, the two sides still differ widely over what else would happen under the measure. They've raised a combined $48 million to make their case to voters, according to the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Supporters say it's simply a matter of preserving the balance of power between workers and management. Union rolls have declined nationwide in recent decades. But the labor movement retains considerable strength in Michigan, where 18.3 percent of all workers — and 12.4 percent of those in the private sector — are union members.
Public employees are particularly concerned about erosion of their standing since the 2010 election of Gov. Rick Snyder and a legislature controlled by fellow Republicans. They're unhappy over new laws taking some benefit and staffing issues off the negotiating table and allowing state-appointed emergency managers to void labor contracts in debt-burdened cities and school districts.
"They want to break down the unions because they say we're costing government lots of money," said Eric Weber, a city firefighter in Lansing. "But we've made concessions. Having it in the constitution just means we'll keep having a seat at the table no matter how the political winds blow."
The leading opposition coalition, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, includes industry and trade groups, chambers of commerce and school administrators. It contends the proposal is an attempted end run around decisions made by voters two years ago and laws passed by the legislators they elected.
"This is a money grab, it's a power grab on the part of organized labor," said Rich Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
In a July memo, Schuette said the measure would impose "breathtaking" limits on how state and local governments carry out their duties, including setting budgets and terms of employment for their workers. It would enable labor contracts to supersede laws, invalidating some 170 already on the books, he said.
"No one knows the full consequences of this," he said in an interview this week. "If you want to have a debate on pension reform, you should do it through the Legislature ... the civics course way. You don't mess with the constitution."
Dan Lijana, spokesman for a union-backed group called Protect Working Families, said the measure "does not repeal a single statute" and pointed to a state appeals court opinion saying the legislature would retain its lawmaking power.
Supporters were particularly stung by opponents' claim that the measure could invalidate laws requiring suspension of teachers who have sex with students or lie about a criminal history during job interviews.
Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who also served as state attorney general, said the allegations were "below-the-belt fear mongering ... beyond offensive to the decent educators who are working in schools every day." It's a crime for teachers to have sex with students and the ballot initiative wouldn't change that, she said.
Nick De Leeuw, spokesman for another opposition group, said a leaked memo from the Michigan Education Association confirmed that laws dealing with teacher discipline probably would disappear under the ballot measure. The MEA says the memo was speculative and written before the appeals court rejected a broad interpretation of the proposed constitutional amendment.