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Gearing up for another fight between Republicans and unions

There’s a new battle in Lansing pitting business groups against unions and it could wind up playing out next November with dueling ballot proposals.

A group of trade unions will launch a petition drive tomorrow to try and preserve Michigan’s prevailing wage law. This is the law that requires contractors to pay union-scale wages on state construction projects.

Republicans and non-union construction firms have wanted to get rid of it for decades.

Now, they appear close to getting their wish. But unions think they have one more card to play.

With this petition drive, the unions want to force Republican lawmakers to make a tough strategic call when it comes to an initiative to ban prevailing wage.

Michigan is one of 24 states that allows groups of citizens to use a petition drive to put a bill in front of the Legislature. If a petition drive succeeds, the Legislature then has 40 days to adopt it, or the question goes on the next general election ballot.  And it doesn’t require the governor’s signature.

So, non-union contractors, backed by Republican leaders and business groups, have turned in petitions to initiate a ban on prevailing wage requirements in government contracts.

Governor Rick Snyder is opposed. He’s trying to get more people interested in skilled trade jobs and he says this is not the way to go about that. But, again, he is shut out here. He doesn’t get to veto an initiated law.

Meantime, Republican Majority Leader of the Senate Arlan Meekhof and Republican Speaker of the House Tom Leonard both say they’re for it and with Republican majorities in both chambers, it appears the votes are there to adopt a prevailing wage ban.

But, now, unions are stepping in with their own petition initiative to protect prevailing wage and it could be a game changer.

Union leaders say they’re confident they can also collect enough signatures to initiate a law. And, if they do, they hope Republicans will hang up plans to outlaw prevailing wage rules and make it a mano-a-mano fight on the November ballot.

In which case, whichever question gets the most votes on the general election ballot would be the one that becomes law.

And the unions think they have an ace in the hole to force Republicans to let that happen but, it’s a little complicated.

If the signature totals on both petitions are certified, then the legislation goes to the Legislature, and if Republicans approve the prevailing wage ban, that would become law. The other issue, the union-backed initiative, would go on the November ballot.

If that initiative is approved by voters, unions say that’s the one, the one most recently adopted, that is then the law of the land.

Of course, at that point, it would no doubt be litigated in court.

But, before it comes to that, Republicans will have to make a strategic choice: are their odds better if they adopt the prevailing wage ban and hope voters reject the union-led effort, or to make the issue a head-to-head competition on the November ballot.  

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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