By SAM INGLOT
Capital News Service
LANSING–Recently proposed labor legislation that outlines stiff monetary penalties for mass picketing has unions crying foul.
The bills, proposed by Sen. Arlan B. Meekhof, R-Olive Township, and Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, would create “enforcement language” for mass picketing and protests, said Bob DeVries, chief of staff for Meekhof.
Under Michigan law now, mass picketing or protests can be deemed illegal if they:
• hinder anyone from pursuing employment
• obstruct or interfere with entrance to any place of employment
• obstruct or interfere with any public roads, streets or highways
• engage in picketing a private residence
Under the bill, any employer or person who is subject to the picket and believes picketers broke the law would be able toget an injunction and have the demonstration stopped. The proposal also includes fines if the activity continues after the court has ruled the picket in violation of the law. A person would be fined $1,000 and an organization supporting it would be fined $10,000 each day the demonstration continues.
Union officials and supporters say Republicans are looking for excuses to undermine unions.
“The protections provided to unions for their behaviors have no opposing metrics to keep them in check,” said Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, co-sponsor of the House legislation. “In many cases there is no safety valve for preventing people, in this case picketers, from going beyond exercising their right to free speech and actually doing harm or damage.”
Shirkey said it’s often the case that mass picketing is not done respectfully or with control.
“It’s not like police can never find reasons to make arrests in the very few instances where picketers have crossed the line,” said Chris Michalakis, legislative and political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers of Michigan. “I’ve never heard a police officer complain that they don’t have enough flexibility and laws to arrest union protesters.”
Some believe the legislation is another union-busting attempt by a Republican controlled state government.
“For those of us who are paying attention, this is just offensive, it’s offensive to intelligent people,” said Tony Trupiano, progressive radio talk show host and union advocate from Detroit. “We can add this to the pile of anti-union measures this legislature has been laser focused on in passing into law. This is just another way to try to get at unions.”
DeVries said the legislation is “something that should have been done years ago,” but opponents say the bills address an imaginary problem.
“It’s just another piece of anti-union, anti-middle class, anti-American legislation,” Trupiano said. “There is no problem, there aren’t mass pickets happening all over the state. In fact, our largest union in the state, the United Auto Workers, in two of their three contracts they’re prohibited from even striking. Where is this coming from? Where is the issue here? They’re basically trying to handcuff the entire democratic process.”
Shirkey said if there isn’t a problem then the language in the law should not be an issue.
Michalakis said the legislation would allow businesses to get away with labor violations with little public scrutiny.
“I think it’s been proposed because they don’t like unions and picketing is one of our few tools to let the public know what types of labor practices are going on in someone’s business,” Michalakis said. “A business is not going to voluntarily say, ‘Hey everybody, we’re violating labor laws. We’re suppressing union rights.’ And that is where the picket comes in, that is where we can inform the public when there are practices going on that they might not like or appreciate.”
Trupiano and Michalakis both said they are concerned that the legislation would violate First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and free speech.
“The fact that a union would claim that it’s an infringement on the right to assemble is laughable,” Shirkey said. “They seem disingenuous and at the very least inconsistent.”When interpreting the constitutionality of a regulation that deals with expression, the key factor is whether or not the regulation is content neutral, said Kevin Saunders, the Charles Clarke chair in Constitutional Law and a professor of law at Michigan State University. The regulation must not be directed at suppressing a specific message.
“The fact that (the proposed legislation) is in a labor statute kind of stacks it a bit against content neutrality to start out with,” he said. “But there would have to be a look at what the motivation was in offering this bill as well. It would be a factual issue as well as the language itself.”
Lansing politicians should be more focused on the struggling economy rather than “wasting time filing bills that create zero jobs and offer zero opportunities for struggling families,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift.
Meekhof’s bill has been referred to the Senate’s Committee on Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing and McMillin’s bill has been referred to the House Committee on Oversight, Reform and Ethics which he chairs.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By SAM INGLOT