Prevailing wage supporters launching counter-petition

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A coalition of construction unions and contractors are launching a petition drive for an initiative to preserve Michigan’s prevailing wage law, an attempt to thwart a separate petition drive seeking repeal.

The state’s Republican-led Legislature could decide early next year whether to scrap the 1965 law, which requires union-rate wages and benefits on state-financed or sponsored construction projects.

But the Michigan Prevails coalition and the Protect Michigan Jobs ballot committee are urging legislators against taking up the repeal initiative.

“They can do what they want to do, but make no bones about it, we are not going to take this lying down,” said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, who is helping organize the counter-petition.

The Protect Michigan Taxpayers ballot committee, funded largely by an association representing contractors who do not use union labor, last month submitted more than 380,000 signatures for a repeal plan. If approved by the Board of State Canvassers, the measure would advance to legislators.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder opposes efforts to repeal the prevailing wage law, which he says could hurt his efforts to promote skilled trades careers. But GOP leaders in the House and Senate support the push, arguing mandated pay rates drive up costs on taxpayer-funded construction projects.

Legislators could scrap the law without Snyder’s signature by approving the repeal initiative when it reaches them. If they do nothing, the measure would go to the ballot in late 2018.

“I’m glad to see the other side has as much confidence in us getting the votes as we do,” said Jeff Wiggins, head of the repeal committee and state director for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan. “That’s what this is; they’re preparing for the Legislature to approve this.”

The counter-petition, dubbed the Construction Workers Fair Wage Act, seeks to continue requiring union-rate wages and benefits on qualifying government-funded construction projects. Organizers hope to convince legislators to allow both measures to go before voters next year.

“All we’re asking the Legislature to do — just like they’re doing with every other initiative this year — is let it go to the ballot and let the people decide,” Devlin said. “If it’s such a good thing and really produces the cost-savings backers claim, then let the people decide.”

Organizers, including various union-friendly contractor associations, will have to collect at least 252,523 signatures within a 180-day window. They’ve scheduled a circulation kick-off event for Tuesday.

“This isn’t just about the unions,” said Mike Crawford, executive director for the Michigan Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association. “This is very much a business issue. The prevailing wage law … makes sure that public construction projects are bid on an equal footing, at least as far as labor is concerned.”

Repeal proponents submitted their signatures on Nov. 3. Opponents have until Dec. 20 to challenge the validity of a signature sample available through the state Bureau of Elections.

Wiggins called the pending petition drive to protect the prevailing wage law “a full-scale assault on Michigan taxpayers” and expressed confidence that legislators and voters will “soundly reject it.”

The Protecting Michigan Taxpayers had spent $590,245 on its repeal effort and petition drive through Oct. 20, according to a disclosure report filed by the state. ABC of Michigan had donated more than $1.1 million to the effort.

Protecting Michigan Jobs, the group seeking to preserve the law, had raised $765,500 through late October but reported having just $75,752 in cash on hand.

“We have a built-in network of people to help collect signatures,” Crawford said. “I don’t want to be overconfident, but I think this will be a very high-quality (petition drive), and we will have the resources needed to do a great job collecting signatures and making sure they’re good signatures.”