A proposed referendum that would enshrine the right to collective bargaining in the Michigan state constitution is too complicated for the ballot, the state's top legal official said, dealing a major blow to the labor movement's campaign for the measure.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, said in a legal analysis obtained by the Detroit Free Press and published on Friday that Michigan ballot measures are limited to 100 words and the implications of the proposed measure are so numerous that it would be impossible to communicate them.
"Just to give a single word to each constitutional and statutory alteration would require double the allowable words," Schuette wrote.
A coalition of unions, supporters of the "Protect Our Jobs" measure, submitted petitions with nearly 700,000 signatures, twice the number needed, to get the measure on the ballot. Petition challenges must be filed by the close of business Aug. 8, and a decision whether to place it before voters by a state election board is expected by mid-August.
The coalition includes the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, and the Michigan Education Association.
In an analysis prepared at Governor Rick Snyder's request and dated July 20, Schuette said the proposed referendum could limit or eliminate parts of 18 provisions in the state constitution and 170 state laws, and raises fundamental questions about the future control of private and public employment in Michigan.
In addition to publishing the analysis, The Free Press posted a copy on its website. Representatives of the governor and attorney general did not immediately respond to inquiries.
The union organizers responded quickly Friday. "Silencing the voice of all voters on the basis of a faulty legal argument defies the spirit of democracy and protections offered to citizens by our constitution," Dan Lijana, spokesman for the petition organizers, said in a statement.
Snyder's spokeswoman, Sara Wurfel, said the governor had not taken an official position and sought the attorney general's opinion because there have been many questions about what the measure would and would not do.
"He has been pretty clear all along that he believes measures like this have a tendency to be divisive and we actually already use collective bargaining in Michigan and have a long history of doing so," Wurfel said.
Only a handful of states, including Florida and Missouri, protect union activity such as collective bargaining in state constitutions, while 23 states have "right to work" laws that bar employers from requiring workers to pay fees for union representation.
Earlier in 2012, Indiana became the latest state to adopt a "right to work" law and the first in the industrial Midwest.
Unions also suffered a setback in Wisconsin earlier this summer when Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election prompted by a new state law he championed that severely reduced the power of public-sector unions such as teachers.
The Michigan ballot measure would cripple efforts to pass a "right to work" law in the state, which has been hit hard by the decades-long struggles of Detroit-based automakers.
Critics say the Michigan measure would discourage businesses from bringing new jobs to the state and encourage some to leave. Experts say the proposal likely would increase voter turnout in the fall presidential election.
Schuette, who was elected attorney general in 2010, served three terms as a U.S. Representative, eight years as a state senator and six years as a state appellate judge.
The United Auto Workers union is a significant, though diminished, political force in Michigan following the auto companies' reduction in employment.
Unions also are asking Michigan voters to repeal a law that widened the powers of state-appointed emergency managers to cut spending in municipalities and school districts deemed to be experiencing a "financial emergency." Such spending cuts have resulted in the loss of union jobs such as teachers, police officers and firefighters.
The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the emergency manager law repeal question should be on the ballot.
That law has been used to take over more than half a dozen financially ailing cities and school systems in the state in recent years and to void union contracts.
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