Weighing PERA’s Consequences

Michigan has a long tradition of supporting workers, and it would be wrong to deny government employees some way to provide input on their work and compensation. But collective bargaining is not the only way to gauge workers' opinions on compensation and working conditions, and a smart manager will actively solicit his employees' opinions anyway.

The pattern of collective bargaining first created by the National Labor Relations Act and imposed on government in Michigan by the Public Employment Relations Act has clearly failed to promote efficient administration of government. Instead, it has made government more intrusive, more burdensome and less responsive to the concerns of Michigan's residents.

Sympathies for unions aside, collective bargaining in government is not a fundamental right; several states explicitly prohibit the practice, and their discretion to do so has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Other states leave the question of whether or not to engage in collective bargaining to the discretion of local officials.[*]

This paper has illustrated numerous shortcomings in the Public Employment Relations Act. Under PERA, important public policy decisions have been removed from the direct control of elected officials and are now made in the process of collective bargaining. As a consequence, officials of government unions have assumed a peculiar role in the making of public policy; the responsibilities, methods and duties of government workers must be negotiated with them, rather than being determined by the elected representatives of Michigan residents. This development is in conflict with the principles of democratic government.

Further complicating matters, the unions that represent government employees have developed a definite ideology, one that concentrates power in government and supports wider redistribution of wealth by government, with the predictable consequences of higher taxes and a weakened private economy. Like private-sector unions, government employee unions have driven up the cost of wages and benefits for government workers while instituting seniority and disciplinary rules that complicate worker assignment and discipline.

Finally, the allowance for mandatory union dues and agency fees gives union officials access to tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds with virtually no restrictions on how these funds are spent.

All of these features of PERA work against the efficient administration of local government in Michigan and contribute greatly to the state's economic difficulties. The government employee unions created by PERA may be the single largest obstacle to restoring the state's prosperity.

An argument can be made that collective bargaining in government is ultimately incompatible with democratic self-government, and the record of PERA itself would appear to provide some evidence for this point of view. If public-sector collective bargaining is to be practiced in Michigan, the patterns and practices of the NLRA must be set aside, and the fundamental principles of democratic government in a free society must be restored. At a minimum, PERA is long overdue for a thorough re-examination, at the end of which the law should be repealed or rewritten.

[*] For an example of a state prohibition against collective bargaining, see Va. Code §40.1-57.2 (Virginia) or Communications Workers of America v. Arizona Board of Regents 498 P.2d 472; 17 Ariz App. 398 (1972) (Arizona) According to an opinion of its Attorney General West Virginia leaves collective bargaining to the discretion of local officials W.V. Atty. Gen. Op. 97 (1974) The U.S. Supreme Court upheld state prohibitions on collective bargaining in Smith v. Arkansas State Highway Employees, 441 U.S. 463 (1979)