By James B. Kelleher
(Reuters) - Michigan voters appeared poised on Wednesday to reject an effort to make collective bargaining a constitutionally protected right in the state, dealing organized labor another setback in a part of the country that once was its stronghold.
With more than half the state's precincts reporting, the proposed amendment was going down to defeat by a 60-40 margin, according to the Michigan Secretary of State.
An exit poll of 800 voters conducted on Tuesday by the Detroit Free Press newspaper predicted the collective bargaining measure would lose by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin.
The amendment, known as Proposal 2, also would have prohibited the state legislature from enacting a so-called "right to work" law.
A spokesman for Prop 2's backers did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The battle over the measure in Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers union, was a closely watched barometer of labor's fortunes following the series of high-profile setbacks the movement has endured in other parts of the U.S. industrial heartland.
F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank, called the defeat of the measure "a major setback for organized labor across the country" and proof that measures seen as negative for unions were part of a national trend.
More than $44 million was spent by both sides on the campaign, according to Michigan Secretary of State filings.
Since the Republican victory in the 2010 midterm elections, organized labor has taken a beating in the Midwest, a region that once was a union bastion.
In June, a union effort to oust Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who curbed collective bargaining by public employees in his state in 2011, was handily defeated.
Earlier in the year, Indiana became the country's 23rd state, and the first in the industrial heartland, to pass "right to work" legislation that bars employers from signing union contracts that require employees to pay fees for representation.
Only a handful of states, including Florida and Missouri, have made unionizing an activity protected by the state constitution, according to Vernuccio at The Mackinac Center.
But Vernuccio and other critics said the proposed Michigan amendment was a more sweeping measure that would have given unions veto power over laws passed by the state's elected representatives.
(Editing by Greg McCune, Bernard Orr)