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Michigan may be the next site of fight for labor rights

With battles between the GOP and organized labor reaching a fever pitch in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, Michigan may be the next battleground in what labor advocates are calling a nationwide war on collective bargaining rights.

“I think there is definitely a systematic approach to weaken labor because of labor’s involvement in politics and primarily for Democratic candidates,” says Jonathan Byrd, legislative director for the Michigan Laborer’s Council.

In Byrd’s view, the anti-labor legislation is clearly a top priority for the GOP-controlled Michigan legislature. He points to Right-to-Work zones and the emergency financial manager and prevailing wage bills coming from the House as examples.

A poll released Monday by CBS News finds that the majority of American voters support collective bargaining and other labor rights.

Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, says the House is not pushing anti-labor legislation.

“The House has not passed any legislation that limits collective bargaining for union members, nor does it plan to. While House Republicans have been accused of trying to bust unions, the reality is we are trying bust the state deficit as well as assist local municipalities and school districts with their skyrocketing expenses,” Adler said. “That’s why Speaker Bolger wants a full review of state and legislative employee compensation packages, including state legislators. That’s also why the Speaker supports legislation that could assist local municipalities and school districts with constraining their cost of doing business, which is paid for by taxpayers.”

Byrd says the Emergency Financial Manager legislation, recently approved by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, actually empowers financial managers appointed by the state to void contracts negotiated between unions and municipal governments without a court’s approval.

“That is going to end up being political,” Byrd said.

Ultimately, Byrd says, the battle over labor rights will be driven by the House, but moderated by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Senate.

“I think both legislative chambers are going to operate differently. The Senate tends to be more moderate by its nature. That is where a lot of legislation is going to slow down. On the House side, those guys are definitely looking to pick a fight,” Byrd says. “Gov. Snyder and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville are going to be butting heads with Bolger.”

Snyder has been signaling a willingness to work with organized labor to negotiate a proposed $180 million in concessions from state employee unions. He has also said that the state should be focusing on budget issues, not labor issues.

Some outlets, Adler says, have painted Snyder’s call for focusing on the budget as a directive to Bolger.

“I can tell you, however, that the story circulating about the Governor telling the Speaker to refocus on the budget and stay away from other legislative priorities is not true. Certainly, the legislative and executive branches have their own agendas, which is not uncommon,” Adler said. “I assure you, however, that we are very much on the same page when it comes to dealing with the top priority for this state: Creating an environment in which job providers can succeed in providing more jobs.”

Last week, Snyder criticized the language of the Emergency Financial Manager legislation in an interview with Peter Luke of MLive.com. But while the governor says he has no desire to diminish collective bargaining rights, his spokesperson, Geralyn Lasher, said that the governor would not commit to vetoing legislation that does so.

“The Governor doesn’t speculate on hypotheticals, so as for what would or would not be vetoed — we have to wait to see what actual bills look like as they make it out of both chambers,” Lasher said.

At a coffee shop near the Senate offices a block from the Capitol on Saturday, where thousands of unions supporters rallied in support of Wisconsin, Byrd said the unions are beginning to stir.

“This was our wake up call. Now we need to plan,” Byrd said. “We need to react to what is going on here, so we have the most impact on our legislature.”

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