Michigan’s Public Employment
Relations Act requires local governments and school districts throughout
Michigan to bargain collectively with unions representing their
employees. The collective bargaining process is a creation of the state
Legislature, which also has the power to repeal or amend it.
earlier Policy Brief, “Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act:
Public-Sector Labor Law and Its Consequences,” we reviewed several negative
effects that the 1965 law has had on Michigan government and the economy. For
example, PERA has inadvertently granted public-sector unions, in their role as
the representatives of government workers who implement local laws and
policies, an effective veto power over many laws that have been passed by
residents or their elected representatives. In addition, PERA has
permitted local government employee unions to collect mandatory “agency fees”
from government workers who do not wish to join, empowering those unions to
become a permanent, subsidized lobby for big government.
No area of
public policy in Michigan is more in need of fresh thinking than the
relationship between government and its employees. With Michigan’s recurring
government budget struggles, and with a new Legislature and governor espousing
a commitment to performance, efficiency and accountability in government, a new
labor law for government employees is imperative.
This report outlines a variety
of ways the Michigan Legislature can address the damaging impact of PERA. These
options range from modest, targeted reforms to an outright ban on collective
bargaining in local units of government.
targeted reforms to correct at least some flaws in the law are the following:
- Establish additional statutory limits on the subject matter of
collective bargaining, backed by a strong enforcement mechanism, to ensure that
the public retains control over important policy decisions. At a minimum,
the state Legislature should require that collective bargaining agreements
conform with state laws and local ordinances.
- Suspend collective bargaining privileges and
agreements when government employee unions flagrantly violate PERA by going on
strike. Collective bargaining for government employees is a privilege, not a
right. “Abuse the privilege, lose the privilege” is a sound rule.
- Bar agency fees from public-employee collective bargaining
agreements — in other words, an “open government employment” rule — to end what
has essentially become a taxpayer subsidy of union politics.
A more substantial overhaul of
PERA would begin by withdrawing the mandate that local governments bargain
collectively, leaving them free to bargain with unions at their
discretion. If state policymakers choose this option, they should also
provide some basic rules to protect workers and taxpayers, including a
prohibition on agency fees, a nullification of contracts that contradict state
or local laws, and the retention of both secret-ballot certification elections
and the members’ power to decertify their unions.
It is settled law that the
Legislature could prohibit collective bargaining at the local level
altogether. It is not at all clear that government employees need
collective bargaining to protect their influence, given their civil service
protections and given their unique knowledge of government operations and their
regular contact with decision-makers — assets that are particularly valuable in
the political context. It is also unclear that collective bargaining
improves employee morale.
In any other context where two
parties bargain to reach an agreement, including private-sector collective
bargaining, it is understood that all parties are free to break off
negotiations if they wish — a principle of “win-win or no deal.” PERA is
unique and problematic in insisting that unions and governments
bargain. This inflexible mandate has resulted in the creation of numerous
contracts that are not in the public’s long-term best interest.
If government exists to advance
the public interest, then the law ought not to enshrine any procedure that
detracts from the public interest. Ideally, the Legislature would repeal PERA
and ban public-sector collective bargaining in local government, ensuring that
local governments overcome the numerous problems associated with mandatory
collective bargaining and that the state makes a clean break from an era of
undue public-sector union influence over government.
legislators are uncertain about that step, they should repeal PERA’s collective
bargaining mandate and leave public-sector collective bargaining — with basic
protections of the public interest — at the discretion of local government. At
the very least, the Legislature should undertake targeted reforms like those
mentioned above. In any event, the
Legislature should act, and act decisively. Public officials in local
government and school districts should no longer be pressured into signing
contracts that are not in the best interests of the public they were elected to