III. Power to the People: The Case for a Local Government Collective Bargaining Ban

Up to this point, we have assumed that some form of collective bargaining between local governments and employee representatives will at times be desirable for government employees, because it helps them improve their compensation and working conditions, and for local governments, because collective representation and bargaining might improve morale among their employees. This paper has examined a wide range of proposals intended to allow collective bargaining, while reining in various abuses of the process that have taken place under PERA. Any of these proposals would lessen the cost and improve the effectiveness of local government.

Many of the proposals might strike labor union advocates as severe, yet all spring from a fundamental principle of American governance: that government exists to serve the public and is answerable to the public. Union advocates might argue that the reform proposals listed above would render government employee unions ineffective. If that is the case, then we must be prepared to consider the possibility that public-sector collective bargaining is ultimately incompatible with representative government and should be prohibited.

As we showed in our earlier report on PERA, the law has the effect of undermining local self-government, empowering union officials who are unaccountable to the public. This failure to maintain the prerogatives of citizens has had profound consequences.

When a union bargains with a private employer, the cost of wages, benefits or work rules may be passed on to the company’s customers or be borne primarily by owners and investors, who will see profits diminished. But whether owners, investors or customers bear the cost, all are free to sever their relationship with the company and its unionized workforce. Owners can sell their shares; investors can invest in other firms; customers can take their business elsewhere.

By contrast, taxpayers must fund government programs and are unavoidably on the hook for any additional cost of collective bargaining — at least until they move elsewhere. Collective bargaining inevitably empowers government employee unions, whose interests can be directly opposed those of the majority of citizens. Over time, union interests can take on the force of government mandates. While the same can be said to some extent of any interest group that successfully lobbies the Legislature or the executive branch, collective bargaining puts government employee unions in a unique position to impose their desires on the general public: Elected officials are expected to negotiate at some length and reach an agreeable compromise with representatives of government employees, while retaining the ability to dismiss other interest groups curtly.

The consequences of this decision to empower union officials can be seen in the wide gap between public- and private-sector benefits — a gap estimated to cost state taxpayers $5.7 billion dollars annually, as noted earlier. The consequences also take the form of public schools that serve many students poorly yet are remarkably resistant to reforms. They are manifested in a powerful, institutional, taxpayer-funded lobby that uses union dues to advance an ideology that values activist government and dismisses the ambitions of individuals.

It is not clear that government employee unions improve morale. In fact, the process of collective bargaining often pushes unions to undermine morale; when employers refuse to meet union demands, union officials will often seek to portray the employer’s refusal as rooted in selfishness or scorn for workers’ efforts. In the context of government, this means a union, legally recognized as a worker representative, is very likely to use its authority to foster animosity among government employees toward elected officials or even the public itself.

There is a strong case to be made that unlike their cousins in the private sector, government employees have no particular need to collectively bargain in order to protect their legitimate interests; their positions in government service provide them with unique opportunities to influence lawmakers. It is widely understood among political scientists that a lobbyist’s most valuable assets are access to decision makers and knowledge of how government functions. Government employees have both.

While government is always prone to disruption as political parties jockey for power and elections swing control back and forth, workers do not necessarily need unions to protect them from partisan pressures. State and local civil service commissions already oversee government employees, create work classifications and establish compensation schedules. These commissions have effectively insulated workers from political pressures. Government employee unions, on the other hand, have taken on a distinctive ideology of their own and are among the most partisan institutions in the nation, as was outlined in the first part of this report.[51]

Law enforcement in particular is an area where union representation is likely to be problematic. Police work requires a high degree of discipline and judgment; on any shift, a police officer must be ready to use force effectively but judiciously, and he or she may be called on to make life-and-death decisions. In such an environment, strict standards and lines of command are essential. Collective bargaining complicates those lines of command by adding a third party to the relations between commanders and patrol officers.

Elected officials, government employees, taxpayers and union officials should always remember that collective bargaining in government has never been an inalienable right. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Smith v. Arkansas State Highway Employees:

The public employee surely can associate and speak freely and petition openly, and he is protected by the First Amendment from retaliation for doing so. … But the First Amendment does not impose any affirmative obligation on the government to listen, to respond or, in this context, to recognize the association and bargain with it.[52]

The Michigan Constitution does state, “The legislature may enact laws providing for the resolution of disputes concerning public employees,” but does not specify what form these laws should take.[53] The constitution does not mandate that the Legislature provide for collective bargaining or the recognition of unions. The Legislature may, for instance, encourage the creation of civil service commissions or create panels with the authority to adjudicate disputes between government employees and managers on an individual basis — something akin to a union grievance process to ensure fair treatment in the workplace. The Legislature may regulate and limit collective bargaining as it deems necessary to protect the public interest, or it may prohibit the practice outright.

Given the numerous difficulties associated with collective bargaining, and the persistent recklessness of government union officials in Michigan, a legislative ban on collective bargaining would probably be the safest course of action. This step would have the advantage of ensuring that the state makes a clean break from an era of undue public-sector union influence over government.