Now that Michigan voters have resoundingly defeated Proposal 2, it is appropriate for lawmakers to review the status in this state of collective bargaining for government employees.
Most people do not realize this is a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States, only becoming common in the 1960s and 1970s (1965 was the year it decisively took hold in Michigan).
Eight states forbid government employee collective bargaining altogether for all or most government employees, while in approximately 20 others it is mandatory for the vast majority of public-sector workers. In the remaining states the practice is mostly or entirely optional for public employers — it is neither required nor prohibited.
Not surprisingly, Michigan is in the “mandatory” camp. A state statute mandates collective bargaining for all local governments and public school districts, and a ruling of the constitutionally authorized Civil Service Commission does the same for state employees.
When unions were given the privilege of imposing mandatory collective bargaining on public employers, government workers already enjoyed the substantial protections and job security afforded by “civil service” laws enacted during the Progressive era of the early 1900s. Under these laws government workers could only be dismissed “for cause” (rather than “at will”), and only after detailed legal procedures were followed.
The additional layer of collective bargaining, along with the huge expansion of government that began around the same time, greatly enhanced the already formidable political power of government employees. Over time their unions have become arguably the most powerful special interest in state and local affairs.
This excessive power has resulted in many abuses. It’s no accident that Michigan state, local and school employees receive fringe benefits whose value exceeds private-sector averages by $5.7 billion annually. Almost all school collective bargaining agreements contain provisions benefiting employees at the expense of students, such as “last in first out” layoff and recall policies protecting poor teachers with high seniority at the expense of excellent ones with fewer years on the job. Many municipal governments appear to be managed primarily for the benefit of the employees rather than taxpayers and residents. This is but a tiny sample of the many excesses that no fair-minded person can regard as reasonable and proper.
Nevertheless, in enacting some comparatively modest reforms Gov. Rick Snyder and the current Legislature have sought to tread lightly on government union perks and privileges, deliberately avoiding the more confrontational approach of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
The response of the government union bosses was the equivalent of a ballot initiative tantrum. Proposal 2 would not just have rolled back recent reforms; it would have all but guaranteed far greater excesses going forward. Had it not been defeated, the measure would have supercharged the power of government employee unions, converting them into a virtual fourth branch of government with powers in many areas superseding those of the democratically elected governor, legislature and courts.
Having dodged that bullet at great expense and trouble, the public interest of this state now demands a re-examination of the government employee union status quo.
Ideally, Michigan should join the states that forbid public sector unionism, embracing the position famously articulated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who stated “(T)he process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
Short of banning the practice altogether, the Legislature should amend existing laws to no longer require government employees to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. The day after the election Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville told Mirs News, "I think that's on the table. . . . We need to seriously consider all options."
He's right, and the sooner this step is taken the better for restoring citizens' faith that government is placing their interests ahead of a powerful special interest.
Beyond that, public employees should be given a stronger say in which union represents them at their workplace by allowing them to recertify their acceptance of union representation every two years. (Under current law once a union is voted in, it stays in perpetuity unless the employees go through a very difficult and confusing decertification process.) Recertification votes should be held at least every two years, with at least 60 percent of employees participating in a secret-ballot vote for the election to be valid.
Other government union reforms would also help level a playing field heavily tilted against taxpayers. These include:
- Making collective bargaining optional for local governments and school districts. A city council or school board should be able to tell unreasonable and overbearing union bosses to take a hike, and allow individual employees to represent themselves in pay and benefit decisions.
- Stop using taxpayer dollars to pay local union officials on government payrolls to perform union work on government time.
- Increase union transparency by requiring regular, detailed and independently audited income and spending disclosures.
Even though it was defeated, it’s likely that Proposal 2 has already cost Michigan jobs, as investors and business owners who might have considered locating or expanding here put those plans on hold pending the outcome. The relationship between the people and the public servants employed by government is way out of balance in this state, and needs to be fixed.
Jack McHugh is senior legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.