AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From Ohio now to Michigan, where labor unions are betting big this election. They're throwing their weight behind not one, but three new ballot proposals. The most ambitious of the three would enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state's constitution. As Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta reports, that could reverse as many as 170 state laws that currently limit union bargaining power and fundraising.
RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Emboldened by a ballot victory last year in Ohio, union leaders and Democrats in neighboring Michigan sensed an opportunity. They want to build a firewall to stop Republican efforts to curtail unions' workplace activities. Labor's top goal is to make sure the state legislature cannot pass a so-called right-to-work law that outlaws compulsory union membership.
Business groups are pushing back.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Vote no on Proposal 2. We can't take the risk.
PLUTA: Michigan is saturated with political ads, in no small part because there are six proposals on the November ballot. Half of them were put on the ballot with big union backing and are now the subject of fierce campaigning on both sides.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Proposal 2 could prohibit schools from removing employees with criminal records. That's dangerous for kids and terrifying for parents.
PLUTA: This TV ad has been criticized for going too far, but it has taken a big bite out of support for the measure. It speaks to one of the ballot proposal's effects and that's that it would throw into doubt many laws about how unions and employers deal with each other.
ROB FOWLER: This would be unprecedented in the country.
PLUTA: Rob Fowler is the president of a small business association. He says that's why business groups are pouring a fortune into opposing Proposal 2 and other union-backed ballot questions.
FOWLER: It would take off the table a huge amount of what is traditional labor law in most states.
PLUTA: Fowler says that would create a sense of uncertainty that would threaten Michigan's economic recovery. Unions are also trying to repeal a very controversial law that gives state-appointed managers sweeping authority over nearly bankrupt local government. Among other things, the managers can and have swept contracts with public employee unions.
Seven Michigan cities and school districts have been taken over and another question would allow home health assistants who are paid by Medicaid to organize into a union. All of these make the November ballot the next flashpoint in the long simmering battle in Michigan between Republicans in the legislature and labor. And unions are putting in both money and boots on the ground.
TODD MCCASTLE: My name is Todd. I'm volunteering on behalf of Protect Working Families. Knocking on doors in the community to seek support for Proposal 2 (unintelligible).
PLUTA: Todd McCastle(ph) is a union carpenter who says he's hit hundreds of doors to get people to support the ballot question.
MCCASTLE: Thank you for your support. Have a good day.
PLUTA: McCastle says he's been getting a good reception here in mid-Michigan in neighborhoods where generations have worked in nearby auto plants.
MCCASTLE: They've either grown up in a culture where they've either worked and been affected by collective bargaining directly or their families have.
PLUTA: The stakes are big. If voters adopt Proposal 2, bargaining rights are locked into the state constitution. If voters reject it, that could give the go-ahead to Republicans in the legislature who want to make Michigan, like Indiana did earlier this year, a right-to-work state. That would be a huge culture change for a state here in the heartland of organized labor.
For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in Lansing, Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.