Michigan House panel approves bill penalizing illegal mass pickets

Michigan House panel approves bill penalizing illegal mass pickets
Sep. 24, 2013 | Comments

Written by
Kristen M. Daum

About House Bill 4643
• Since 1939, state law has prohibited mass picketing under certain conditions such as when doing so would impede or intimidate people from engaging in lawful employment, obstruct access to places of employment, interfere with the use of public roadways or transit or when if a protest would involve a private residence.
• House Bill 4643 would allow employers to seek court orders to stop illegal pickets. Employers would not have to show they’re suffering any harm before seeking court action.
• The bill also would allow circuit courts to impose fines on individuals or unions engaged in such pickets. If an individual was previously subjected to a court order over illegal mass-picketing and they violated that law again, the court could fine them $1,000 per day for each day they picket illegally. Unions or organizations that sponsor a picket in violation of a court order could be fined $10,000 per day.
• After receiving approval Tuesday from a House committee, the bill moves to the chamber floor for consideration, but it’s unclear how quickly it could be voted on.

LANSING — Legislation that would institute steep fines for individuals and labor unions who engage in illegal mass pickets is headed to the House floor.

But lawmakers and labor and business leaders can’t agree on whether it addresses an actual problem in Michigan — the one example given during debate on the proposal was the Detroit Newspapers strike in 1995.

Unions say the House bill would chill their members’ voices by intimidating workers against protesting their employers. Businesses, represented by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, say the bill “adds teeth” to current law and addresses “a real problem” employers face.

The House Oversight Committee voted 4-2 along party lines Tuesday in favor of House Bill 4643.

The legislation, introduced last spring by Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, is the most recent example in a line of legislative changes that have staunchly divided labor groups and businesses in recent years, like the controversial right-to-work law.

Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, described the bill as “a solution in search of a problem.”

Wendy Block, director of health policy and human resources for the state chamber, rejected that premise and called the legislation “a solution to a real problem that does exist here.” The chamber mentioned the newspaper strike.

“There certainly are examples here in Michigan,” Block said.

However, when pressed by Democratic lawmakers, Block either would not or could not provide specific examples and, minutes later, acknowledged that no recent pickets — such as those among restaurant workers seeking a higher minimum wage — have risen to the level of warranting a court injunction.

“Our concern is it very likely could,” Block said, agreeing with Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit, that the bill was more “preventative” in nature. Both Townsend and Robinson voted against sending House Bill 4643 to the floor.

Testimony: UAW opposes fines for illegal mass picketing

Tim Hughes, the legislative director for the United Auto Workers, called the legislation “legally flawed” and indefensible, because it would allow a business to receive a court injunction to stop a picket without requiring the business to show that the picket is causing actual harm.

“It’s a bad idea; it’s trying to intimidate unions from picketing when they’re on strike,” Hughes said. “There’s already laws on the books that provide penalties if they’re not picketing properly.”

Block said existing laws aren’t sufficient and the House bill is “needed to provide a stronger deterrent, or teeth.” The bill would allow courts to impose fines of $1,000 per day on individuals and $10,000 per day on unions that are found to be repeated violators of the law.

“No one is saying employees don’t have their right to picket or to voice their concerns,” Block said. “This is a question of the avenue in which they do it and when it crosses the line of business operations.”