Introduction: Problems and Premises

This study is a sequel to the Mackinac Center Policy Brief “Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act: Public-Sector Labor Law and Its Consequences.”[1] In that study, we considered the state law that governs labor relations between local governments and their unionized employees.[*] To a lesser extent, we also discussed the Civil Service Commission rules that govern relations between the state and its employees. Both PERA and the CSC rules were based on the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law designed to cover private-sector workers. We found that PERA has a deleterious effect on Michigan’s government and economy for several reasons:

  • The National Labor Relations Act was an especially poor model for public-sector labor relations.
  • PERA empowered union officials, but failed to establish any means of holding them accountable to the public for the manner in which they used that power.
  • PERA gave union officials something akin to a veto power over important aspects of local policymaking.
  • Agency-fee clauses[†] in local collective bargaining agreements were in effect a taxpayer subsidy of union lobbying.

Since the release of that report, Michigan’s economic condition has improved only marginally, but a new Legislature has been seated, and a new administration, pledging a fresh approach to state government, has just entered office. Government employees ultimately are responsible for implementing new laws and new policies, so a new approach to governing suggests a new approach to hiring, supervising and compensating those employees. No area of public policy in Michigan is more in need of fresh thinking than the relationship between government and the men and women who work for it. A new commitment to performance, efficiency and accountability in government demands a new labor law for government employees.

This report will consider differing approaches to public-sector labor law reform, ranging from the modest to the comprehensive. It is a truism that we want government employees to be treated fairly and that it is best if those employees are satisfied with their wages and working conditions. But public employees are not the only ones with an interest in government labor relations. Our discussion will be based on two very basic premises that have been overlooked far too often in debates involving government employees:

  • First, that government in Michigan, in all its programs and aspects, is accountable to the people for its actions and should function in accordance with the will of the people. Government employees are only one of many constituencies that government must attend to and should not be given any unique powers that elevate their interests above those of other citizens.
  • Second, that collective bargaining, while potentially valuable to workers of all stripes, is not an inalienable right. To the extent that it is allowed in government, it must be conducted under rules that protect the public interest. If collective bargaining cannot be brought into harmony with the public interest, it ought not to be practiced in government at all.

This second premise is likely to generate controversy and vehement denials among union officials, yet it is a natural and unavoidable consequence of consensual government, and it has been expressly validated by U.S. Supreme Court precedent.[2] If government exists to advance public interests — however broadly or narrowly defined — then the law ought not to enshrine any procedure that detracts from the public interest.

Public employees will always have the right to join an organization that seeks to advance their well-being. That organization may style itself as a union, but government is under no constitutional obligation to bargain with that union and ought not bargain with a union if this does not serve the public interest. Furthermore, because the government and its employees are servants of the public, it is the public, not the officials of government employee unions, who must determine what the public interest is and whether collective bargaining serves it well.

[*] The Michigan Public Employment Relations Act was passed as Public Act 379 of 1965; see MCL § 423.201-217. It has been amended several times since.

[†] Agency-fee clauses in union contracts require employees to pay fees to the union for its work as a collective bargaining representative even if the employee does not wish to join the union. In the vast majority of cases, the union demands such fees, and management agrees to them.