About That Evil Scheme We're Supposed to Have

There’s no secret agenda being revealed here, and MEA would probably survive anything we have planned for them anyway.

My colleague Jack McHugh might have wound up oversimplifying things a bit last June when he wrote to a lawmaker that the Mackinac Center’s goal is to “outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan, which in practical terms means no more MEA.” 

Nuances sometimes get lost in quick emails. There are things short of a flat prohibition on government collective bargaining that would improve things for taxpayers in Michigan, and the MEA would probably survive in every scenario we envision. But there’s no secret agenda being revealed here. 

We have long been critical of the collective bargaining process in government, and of the manner in which many unions — the MEA among them — have misused their powers. Union officials do not have an inalienable right to represent government employees; we the people get to decide whether we recognize unions that represent public servants, and if we do, under what conditions. 

By all means, the people of Michigan should be fair to government employees, but fairness does not mean that unions dictate to the people, and in many cases state government labor law has come disturbingly close to allowing unions to do just that. For example, a year and a half ago, the MEA was able to scuttle the “Race to the Top” reform package that had broad, bipartisan support. 

Nor does fairness to workers mean that unreasonable burdens should be placed on taxpayers, but that is what has happened; at the beginning of the year, government employee benefits exceeded those in the private sector to the tune of $5.7 billion annually — an additional $570 every year for every man, woman and child in the state, $2,280 in extra taxes for a family of four every year. Recent legislation should provide some relief for taxpayers, but there's much more work to be done.

We believe that many of this state’s problems can be traced back to the decision, made during the mid-1960s, to take a labor law process designed for private-sector companies and apply it to government with few modifications to account for the differences between privately owned for-profit companies and democratically elected, taxpayer-funded government. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, maybe the most pro-labor president in American history, saw dangers in this approach.

Not every state took this path. We believe Michigan can and should change course. The  MEA and all the other government unions would still exist, but they would be very different institutions, with different roles and prerogatives. Rather than remaining legally entrenched obstacles to reform funded by mandatory dues from government employees (who individually may not support the unions’ agendas), they could carry on as voluntary associations that advocate better treatment of government employees, funded, much as Mackinac Center is, by voluntary contributions from those who truly support them. They would probably be a smaller organization, but even that wouldn’t automatically be the case. They would have fewer special legal privileges, but would be more credible as the spokesman for civil servants and good government in general. Voters would have more control over state and local governments, and that would be better for everyone, including government employees, over the long haul.

We at the Mackinac Center have demonstrated that the current system has been a disaster for this state. We are long overdue in Michigan for a debate over just what role unions ought to play in the public service. We would have preferred that the MEA choose to highlight one of the numerous studies we have done on the bargaining process, or on government employee benefit costs, or on how collective bargaining affects the quality of education. But if they would rather focus on an off-the-cuff response to a lawmaker’s inquiry, we still welcome the discussion.