A win, a loss, and a toss-up for labor in Michigan

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This story is from The Building Tradesman.

LANSING, Mich. - Labor won one, lost one, and had one key issue still up in the air in the latest action in the Republican-run Michigan legislature. The win was state senate approval of a measure to make part-timers eligible for jobless benefits, thus letting them both work and collect aid for the hours that they miss.

That measure would let firms keep workers on the job, with wages and benefits combining to almost match prior full-time pay, until business picks up and they can be restored to full-time employment.

But that win was balanced off by a loss: A second state attempt to ban project labor agreements (PLAs) on state and locally funded construction. Still pending: A proposal - directed at teachers unions - barring paying workers for time taken out for union duties such as grievances or handling shop steward responsibilities.

The Michigan House on May 31 adopted a "fix-it" bill to again ban PLAs. Lawmakers banned PLAs last year, but in February, U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts tossed it out, saying that ban was pre-empted by the U.S. National Labor Relations Act.

The new PLA ban was adopted along party lines, with one House Republican voting along with all the Democrats against it. The GOP controls the house, 64-46. A nearly identical version previously passed the senate, also along party lines, and is headed for GOP Gov. Rick Snyder's signature. Republican lawmakers hope the new ban is an end-around evading Roberts's ruling.

"The bottom line with this new bill is they're trying to fix what the federal judge found wrong, by making technical changes," Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council attorney John Canzano says.

"But in my opinion, they can't find a fix for what they're trying to do, which is to prevent all government units in Michigan from employing PLAs." The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council had appealed the prior PLA ban in federal court, and won.

Not content with trashing construction workers by the PLA ban, the lawmakers went after the teachers, too - again.

The ban (SB7) on using tax dollars to pay union officials for time conducting union business surfaced May 23 in a state senate committee after being introduced in early 2011. Last year, the GOP enacted a ban on school districts taking payroll deductions for union dues.

A "fiscal impact" statement May 24 by the Senate Fiscal Agency said: "The bill would have no impact on state revenue or expenditures, or on local unit revenue."

That non-impact comes after the GOP, last year, enacted a law forcing all new state public school hires into a 401(k) plan, rather than a traditional pension. The state House Fiscal Agency calculated that law would cost the state $300 million per year.

The payment ban would most heavily impact teachers represented by the American Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Education Association in 12 large school districts, MEA said. But numerous other public employee union members would also be affected, though not police officers and Fire Fighters unions.

Last year, Michigan AFL-CIO Legislative Director Michael Geller told a state House committee "permitting union officials to become engaged early on in a problem will typically allow for a quicker and sometimes less costly resolution."

He added both the union and the employers locally weigh the costs and benefits of the practice. "This is a local control issue, Geller said. Added MEA: "Many times, union business is school business. When problems arise, they can be resolved quickly during the day. The school district benefits and the union benefits."

But just as even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then, as the old saying goes, the Michigan Senate Republicans came up with a pro-worker bill, in contrast to the 95 anti-worker measures moving through Lansing.

By unanimous vote on May 23, the senate approved legislation to allow payment of unemployment benefits to individuals whose wages and hours have been reduced. This would let employees working part-time also collect unemployment benefits and enable companies to retain employees rather than laying them off. Similar work-sharing legislation is pending in other states. Germany used it to successfully avoid the huge depths and high joblessness that hit Michigan and the U.S. in the Great Recession.

"It doesn't matter whose name is on the bill, what matters is the legislature is taking action to provide help for Michigan workers struggling to get by and enable companies to retain top-flight talent," said Democratic State Sen. Vince Gregory. "We have been calling for action on work-sharing legislation for more than a year and I applaud sponsor Sen. Bruce Caswell's efforts to finally get some traction on this important lifeline for working families." Added Caswell: "Today's unemployment compensation system is not adequate or agile enough to retain our best talent."

Employers could reduce employees' hours, while letting workers receive reduced unemployment benefits to somewhat make up for their losses. The bill now goes to the state House for consideration. Snyder has expressed support for the legislation.

Photo: A Michigan worker demonstrates at a rally.   William Archie/AP & Detroit Free Press

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