Bargain Hunting

The Center Amasses a Database of Local Government Union Contracts

Public employee union contracts drive up the cost of local government in Michigan, but the public is often unaware of this. Voters are rarely — if ever — told what all the contracts’ terms are or how their city’s contracts compare to those in nearby communities.

This is why the Mackinac Center has taken the unique step of gathering and posting online the government employee collective bargaining agreements for all 83 Michigan county governments and the state’s 28 largest municipalities. This new Michigan Local Government Database contains contracts for public employees in law enforcement, courts, corrections, fire, public works, clerical services and more from Alcona to Wexford counties.  For Detroit alone, the database contains 29 contracts incorporating more than 750 work classifications, including “aquarists,” “tree artisan helpers” and “comfort station matrons.”

After a strong debut in early September, the database continues to draw attention, with over 250 hits per week.

In Michigan, government employee benefits exceed those for private-sector workers by nearly $5 billion annually. In many cases, expensive health care plans are written into union contracts. Bringing local government’s benefits back into balance can preserve important government services while opening up the possibility of tax relief for families and employers.

Collective bargaining agreements often allow union officials to conduct union business on government time, and sometimes even on the government’s dime. For Macomb County, stewards get five hours per week paid on union business, the unit chairman gets up to four hours a day, and there is mandated release time for the three-member bargaining committee. In Saginaw, public works committeemen and stewards are paid by the city for time lost on grievances, bargaining and union meetings.

Another aspect of collective bargaining that deserves more attention is the extent to which contracts protect government employees from discipline. In Taylor County, nonrecurring disciplinary records are removed on request after two years (one year if the issue is minor). In Detroit, letters of reprimand are removed after two years regardless of recurrence. Contracts with police officer unions also often include clauses providing for arbitration of discipline, such as in Detroit, Novi and Dearborn Heights, all of which make police departments less accountable to the public. 

We can anticipate a wide range of reasons why Michiganders would be interested in viewing these contracts, but the best reasons might be the ones we can’t anticipate: local conditions might make an innocuous-looking contract clause a budget-buster; petty political intrigues can create opportunities for payoffs buried in agreements. These are the sorts of things that local residents may sniff out as they look over the products of collective bargaining.

Our research shows that collective bargaining under current state law does not serve the public interest. The contract database should be a useful tool for illustrating why.