Advice for Gov. Snyder

When it’s all said and done PERA is the problem.

Gov. Rick Snyder tonight is expected to outline his agenda for dealing with a looming state and local financial crisis as part of his State of the State address. If Gov. Snyder were to ask me for my advice about what might be the most important speech he ever gives, it would be as follows:  

  1. By now it has become fairly clear that government employee unions are the primary obstacle to the sorts of reforms that are needed in this state. The unions have abused their position as representative of state and local employees to build the state’s most powerful political machine. The oversized benefits they have negotiated have added $5.7 billion annually to the cost of government. The work rules they have negotiated have made government itself less effective. Their political and bargaining muscle is consistently used to block reforms, like merit pay for teachers, that are both popular and promising.
  2. If Gov. Snyder is at all serious about reining in the cost of government employees and instituting a new culture of “customer service” in state government, it will be done over the strenuous objection of those same unions. There is simply no avoiding this conflict.
  3. Gov. Snyder wants to be a transformational governor (don’t they all?), but even if he succeeds over the short term in reducing the burden of government employee benefits, as long as the current union structure remains intact it will probably be just a matter of time before his efforts are undone and Michigan is right back where it is now.
  4. So in order to restore Michigan to permanent economic health, we will need to make fundamental changes to the labor laws that govern state and local employees. Most government employees in Michigan are unionized under the Public Employment Relations Act. PERA is the source of government employee union power. When it’s all said and done PERA is the problem .
  5. One is ordinarily very reluctant to read any group of fellow citizens out of a public discussion that concerns them, but the track record of government employee union officials – their recklessness and avarice – have reached such a depth and persisted for so long that their preferences ought to be disregarded in all debates over government finance or the future of labor law. Forced to make a snap decision with little guidance, a legislator could do a lot worse than to find out what proposal government union officials object to the most and vote for that.
  6. It is settled constitutional law that government employees do not have an absolute right to collective bargaining. An outright ban on bargaining would be permissible under the U.S. Constitution. Short of that, the Legislature can place strict limits on collective bargaining to prevent abuse, adopt a right-to-work law to protect workers and redirect taxpayer funds away from the union political machine, or leave discretion over whether to bargain or not with local officials, taking away the unions' ability to usurp authority from the people and their duly elected representatives.

If there is one thing that can be said with certainty in this challenging and confusing time, it is that government employee unions in Michigan wield too much power, and have used that power destructively. Michigan cannot afford to keep PERA as is. It would be best if Gov. Snyder were to say so explicitly.