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Unions blast House panel for advancing mass picketing, strike bills

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Union officials say a set of bills in Lansing are an attack on employees’ ability to strike and protest.

The state House Oversight Committee approved the legislation Tuesday. It now goes to the full state House.

House Bill 4643 would increase penalties for protesters who violate current picketing laws. It would also allow business owners to get a court order banning a demonstration without first having to prove picketers were doing something wrong.

Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak) is the top Democrat on the panel. He called that language unconstitutional.

“If we are not giving people an opportunity to be heard in court before they’re enjoined from exercising those fundamental rights, then we’re really taking a step toward denying those fundamental rights,” Townsend said after the panel voted Tuesday.

“I can’t believe we’re doing that in this committee today. It’s very disappointing and very disturbing.”

But bill sponsor and Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) says it’s not an issue of free speech.

“As long as they’re doing it legally and not blocking somebody from having their business open, there’s no problem,” said McMillin.

“So we’re just dealing with things that are… businesses are not having the ability to keep their business open, the police may be limited in resources and can’t park a car out there 24 hours a day.”

House Bill 4642 would get rid of a current law dealing with replacement workers during a strike.

It requires employers to tell prospective employees that a strike is going on and that they’re replacing someone who has walked off the job.

Tim Hughes, with the Michigan chapter of the United Auto Workers (UAW), spoke out against both bills Tuesday. He says it’s crucial to let people know what they are getting into when they apply for and accept a job.

“Many people have a philosophical objection to taking a job where they’re replacing a striking worker,” said Hughes. “They don’t want to be a ‘scab.’”

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other supporters say the state’s anti-picketing laws are too weak. They say both proposals are needed to protect businesses from irreparable harm that can be caused by strikes and protests.

Wendy Block spoke on behalf of the Michigan Chamber at the hearing. She pointed to recent protests calling for a higher minimum wage which occurred at a number of fast food restaurants in Michigan and across the country. Block says those businesses could have suffered because of the protests, and are a good example of why the state’s laws need to be changed.

That led Rep. Rose Mary Robinson (D-Detroit) to question whether the bills were really aimed at the substance of those or other protests. Block denied that suggestion.

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