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Commentary: Putting right to work on the ballot

The lawmakers who passed legislation this week making Michigan a right to work state wanted to make sure the voters couldn’t try to repeal it by collecting signatures and putting another referendum on the ballot. That‘s how unhappy citizens got rid of the governor’s first emergency manager law last month.

So the legislature included some money in the bill. Under Michigan’s constitution, appropriations bills are immune from the referendum process.  The idea was to make sure right to work could never be repealed unless by a vote of the legislature.

And since Democrats winning control of the State Senate any time in the next decade is seen as virtually impossible, those who want right to work figure they have made sure it is here to stay.

Yet believe it or not, there is a way those opposing right to work could collect signatures and get something on the ballot to repeal this. It won’t be easy, and it would take at least two years.

But it could be done -- and here’s how, based on what experts in the elections division of the Michigan Secretary of State‘s office told me yesterday. Since a conventional referendum is off the table, voters could try to get rid of right to work through what’s called the legislative initiative process. First, they‘d have to collect signatures asking the lawmakers to enact a law repealing right to work.

They would have 180 days to come up with 258,000 valid signatures. Naturally, since some are always invalid for one reason or another, anyone attempting this would want to get more. Once the Secretary of State determines they have enough signatures, the clock starts running.

The legislature then would have 40 days to repeal right to work. If they don’t -- and of course, the Republican-controlled legislature almost certainly would not -- then the state, and I quote, “shall submit such proposed law to the people for approval or rejection at the next general election.” According to Fred Woodhams of the Michigan Department of State, that would be November, 2014.

Now there is a kicker: The legislature could also put their own substitute proposal on the same ballot, possibly in an attempt to confuse voters. What if both of them pass? Well, the one that got the most votes would take effect.

Success would be anything but certain. Lots of money would certainly be spent to try to defeat any initiative by pro right to work forces. Yet it could theoretically be done. 

When the governor signed right to work into law three days ago, an indignant Congressman Sander Levin of Royal Oak sent this message: “The effort to reverse this wrong-headed action and restore a Michigan that encourages middle-class jobs … begins today.” I don’t know if that was just rhetoric, or if he has a plan. I do know reversing this will be anything but easy.

However, if the unions and their allies are serious about trying to repeal right to work, an initiative petition to get this before the voters would seem to be their only real chance of doing so.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.


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