For a thorough examination of Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act and the author’s recommendations on how to fix it, please see www.mackinac.org/14565
Watching the Legislature
tackle public-sector labor relations is a lot like watching a bomb squad at work:
slowly, painstakingly picking out wires and nervously cutting them, hoping they
don’t trigger an explosion.
The caution is
understandable; under Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act, government
employee unions have built powerful political machines based on collective
bargaining authority and massive amounts of cash. But perhaps lawmakers have
made this process more complicated than it has to be. Sometimes the best thing
to do with a bomb is to cart if off to an empty field where you can blow it up.
To defuse the situation — and the continuous threat to taxpayers — the Legislature could outlaw collective bargaining in local governments and school districts.
Over the last
several months, lawmakers have made a series of changes to public-sector
collective bargaining. Some, like changes to the emergency financial manager
law that allow union contracts for insolvent cities, counties and school
districts to be set aside, are likely to have a positive effect. Others, like
the watered-down changes to the binding arbitration law, may have no impact.
situation is, well, explosive. PERA has created powerful government employee
unions that have used their position as bargaining representatives for police
officers, firefighters, teachers, clerks and a host of other government
employees to influence how government in Michigan functions. Up until very
recently, if a school district wanted to let go of ineffective teachers, it
would have to be ready to negotiate evaluations and assignments with a union
that would almost always insist on strict seniority and a clumsy evaluation
process that made it difficult even to identify bad teachers, let alone get them
out of classrooms.
New changes to
the teacher tenure law should give districts more leeway — tenure will be
harder to get, and easier to lose, and layoffs should no longer be done by
seniority. But to make all this work, the Legislature also had to change the
bargaining law, taking these actions off the collective bargaining table so
that districts wouldn’t be pressured into negotiating away their power to
identify and let go of bad teachers. The Michigan Education Association, the
state’s largest teachers union, is displeased and threatening to recall
legislators who voted in favor of the new tenure law.
Which gets us to
the other dangerous part of PERA: the millions of dollars in mandatory union
dues payments — money that is basically guaranteed to unions by government
officials with little or no accountability for how it is used. In a typical
year the MEA receives more than $60 million in forced dues. Based on its financial
reports, we estimate that only about a third of the MEA’s budget goes into workplace
So for all their
caution, lawmakers still will have to confront a union with the means and the
motivation to strike back at those who seek to make schools better at teaching
students. A host of other unions can make similar threats to lawmakers who
attempt to make other government services less costly and more productive.
tinkering has still left us with a powerful union establishment that is capable
of doing great damage, just waiting for something to set it off. To defuse the situation — and
the continuous threat to taxpayers — the Legislature could outlaw collective
bargaining in local governments and school districts.
There is no need to maintain a union establishment that has become a menace to
education and good government in general.
There’s a strong
case to be made that carefully calibrated half-measures will do more damage
than a straightforward approach to public-sector unions like repealing PERA
outright or cutting off unions’ dues funds. Union officials are going to lash
out either way, so policymakers may as well fix things so that next time unions
decide to target lawmakers, they do it with funds they raised themselves rather
than mandatory dues handed over by local school districts. Blow PERA up, one
time, and know that when it’s over, it won’t blow up again.
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 the Center are properly cited.