Last month, the Michigan Supreme Court struck the right balance between worker safety and responsible municipal budgeting in the case of Detroit Fire Fighters vs. City of Detroit and the related case of Pontiac Fire Fighters Local 376 vs. City of Pontiac. These were complicated rulings on what might seem to be technical questions, but these were important decisions for local governments that are struggling financially. The Supreme Court applied the law properly and struck the right balance between protecting workers and allowing local governments to act responsibly.

The main issue in both cases was whether Michigan cities can lay off fire personnel during binding arbitration. The Detroit case arose in 2005, when the financially strapped city restructured its fire department and laid off 65 firefighters. At the time the city was engaged in binding arbitration with the Detroit Fire Fighters Association to settle wage and employment disputes as a result of a collective bargaining impasse dating back to December 2002. The Pontiac case arose out of a very similar situation.

Under Public Act 312, which established the arbitration process for firefighters and police officers, most terms of the prior contract — including safety provisions — remain in effect until the arbitration panel makes its ruling. Citing PA 312, the union filed for and was granted an injunction blocking the restructuring and layoffs on the basis that the city’s changes would affect safety. The Supreme Court reversed that injunction, allowing the layoffs to go through.

There are two ways to look at a decision like this. The first is from a legal perspective, the second is in terms of policy. In legal terms the cases hinged on the criteria under which a court should issue an injunction — a court order requiring that a party either take an action or refrain from doing so under penalty of contempt. Among other things, before a party can get any injunction it must show that it will suffer irreparable harm unless the injunction is granted. The "irreparable harm" claimed by the unions consisted of increased danger due to fewer firefighters; the unions argued that with a smaller fire department, response times are likely to be longer and fewer firefighters may be available, making their work more dangerous.

But while it is plausible that these features might make firefighting more dangerous, there is a certain amount of speculation in the union’s position: improved safety equipment and practices could be used to minimize risk and personnel can be reassigned to make more firefighters available for runs. A smaller department might make firefighting more dangerous, but that isn’t automatically so, and courts should not issue injunctions unless the risks of harm are more substantial.

As a result, the court found that when local governments and unions are engaged in arbitration, an injunction blocking layoffs or other changes on the grounds that they affect worker safety should not be issued unless the changes are "inextricably intertwined" with safety. The court rejected the union position that such changes should be barred if they "arguably" affect worker safety.

In terms of policy the court’s decision was a sound one. If the court had accepted the union position, police and fire unions would have an effective veto over layoffs as long as arbitration lasts — which can be years — no matter how dire a city’s financial position, because any change in staffing or policy could "arguably" affect safety.

Under this ruling, unions will still be free to protect their members. Michigan cities will not be able to change specific safety-related contractual provisions without union approval, and unions will be free to object to changes as long as they can produce sound evidence that safety will be compromised.

These are hard issues: the safety of police officers and firefighters is important, but so is sound management; when cities lose population taxpayers should not be forced to pay for larger police and fire departments than they need. Layoffs should be a last resort, but the ultimate responsibility for making that decision should rest with the people and their elected representatives, not union officials.

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Paul Kersey is director of labor policy 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.

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