Pete Vargas, campaign manager for the One Fair Wage ballot initiative that would raise Michigan's minimum wage, speaks at a news conference Sept. 4, 2018, on the steps of the state capitol in Lansing. The group opposes a potential Republican legislative strategy to adopt the initiative then amend it later in the year. (David Eggert/AP)

The Michigan legislature recently passed a proposal that Tracy Pease desperately promoted for more than seven months.

And she’s furious.

Pease, who earns $3.53 an hour as a server at the Coney Island diner in a suburb of Detroit, helped successfully gather hundreds of thousands of signatures to put a minimum- and tipped-wage hike to the voters via a ballot referendum this fall. Michigan organizers also had gathered enough signatures to force a vote on paid sick leave for workers.

But by signing both proposals into law last week, Michigan’s GOP-controlled state legislature has prevented them from being put to the voters — while also giving lawmakers a straightforward path to derailing them.

In Michigan, overturning a ballot referendum once it is approved by the voters requires a three-fourths majority of the legislature. By passing the measures now and scrapping the ballot referendum, Michigan lawmakers can instead undo them through a simple majority vote. Lawmakers have vowed to take up the proposals in the lame-duck session this fall, before they are scheduled to take effect.

“I’m angry. I’m really angry,” said Pease, 47. “It’s not just that I had a vested interest in this. But the point was to go to the people, and now they have circumvented our vote. They have taken away our vote.”

The fight over Michigan’s paid family leave and minimum-wage policy reflects broader battles occurring in several states and cities across the country, as progressive groups have tried turning to public ballot initiatives to get around deadlocked or GOP-controlled legislatures.

Those efforts have often run aground. In Arizona, teachers’ organizations had hoped to win higher pay through a ballot measure that would have raised their salaries by taxing the rich. But Arizona’s highest court blocked the ballot initiative in a ruling in late August.


Thousands of teachers protest May 3, 2018, in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Massachusetts organizers similarly pushed a ballot initiative for a surtax on any income above $1 million, hoping to use that money to fund education and transportation need. (The state has a Republican governor who has a mixed record on new taxes.) But the state's Supreme Court also struck it from the ballot this summer. And in Washington, city officials are moving to overturn the results from a public referendum that approved a higher wage for tipped workers.

“Paid sick leave, minimum-wage hikes, higher taxes on the rich for teachers — these are all overwhelmingly popular among both Democratic and Republican voters,” Saru Jayaraman, an academic at the University of California at Berkeley and co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which has pushed raising the wage for tipped workers. “Ballot measures are the greatest path to allow working people to move the issues they believe in, but they’re being subverted.”

The Michigan minimum-wage hike would have gradually increased it to $12 an hour by 2022 and upped the tipped wage from its current rate of about $3.50. The paid-sick-leave plan would require employers to pay for their employees' time off.

Business groups opposed to both measures cheered the vote, saying they had pushed lawmakers in both parties to approve the measure they ultimately hoped to defeat. Charlie Owens, of the National Federation of Independent Business, said approving the plans were necessary to avoid “an impossible hurdle that would have left us stuck” with the proposals.

“It’s confusing, because we’re opposed to the proposals, so we asked the legislature to vote for them,” Owens said. Owens pointed to research he said showed servers make less money when the tipped wage is increased, a claim contested by liberal groups.

Michigan state lawmakers are not saying exactly how they plan to change either plan but acknowledge the purpose of their vote Wednesday was to stop the public from ratifying the proposed ballot initiatives. Attempts to change the laws before the end of the legislative session may throw the battle to the courts, as one group has already vowed to sue if the legislation heads to the courts.

“The Senate adopted the policy to preserve the ability for this legislature and future legislatures to amend the statute to better fit our state and our economy,” Arlan B. Meekhof, the state senate's Republican majority leader, said in a statement. “The Senators heard from restaurant employees who fear they will earn less under the proposal and business owners who are concerned that they may have to reduce payroll in order to meet these new mandates. The Senate will be looking at options to improve the policies in the coming months.”

Twenty-one Democrats in the state’s lower chamber voted for the measure, according to the Detroit News, while six state Republicans voted against it. State Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R), one of the no votes, said conservative policymakers should have had the courage to take their fight to the voters and win in November.

“What it boils down to is we have Republicans who are afraid to make the case against the policy,” Colbeck said. “We're playing procedural gimmicks."