The intent of Michigan’s compulsory arbitration law, Public Act 312 of 1969, was to provide municipalities with a device to resolve labor disputes with police and fire unions without a strike. The effect has been a financial nightmare for cities engaged in contract disputes with public safety personnel. Taxpayers would be best served by the repeal of this budget-busting legislation.
I didn’t come to this conclusion arbitrarily. In what now seems like another life, I once was the vice president of a Michigan State Employees Union local. My brother, Keith Johnson, is the controversial president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). Marty Bandemer, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA), is a friend. I even agree with AFSCME Council 25 President Al Garrett that public employees shouldn’t have to suffer disproportionately from bad public policy and management decisions.
Howver, neither my brief labor background nor my labor relationships have convinced me of the logic of PA 312, or its public benefit.
The law was enacted with then-Senator Coleman A. Young’s sponsorship. Mayor Young, with roots in the labor movement, quickly discovered the bill shifts power to labor’s side of the bargaining table. He rued the day he backed it. Despite misgivings, however, he never pushed for its repeal, even after several adverse arbitration awards substantially increased Detroit’s indebtedness.
Police and fire operations often make up the largest share of a city’s budget.
Fundamentally, the legislation strips management of the ability to effectively control their finances by removing the incentive for unions to bargain in good faith. When negotiations deadlock, arbitration is automatic and arbitrators have broad latitude to fashion awards that fly in the face of efficiencies or reforms.
These panels wield enormous power over fringes and work rules, often at the expense of policymakers and taxpayers. Inane rules and procedures are allowed to become permanent fixtures in union contracts. Exorbitant awards that have no relationship to a city’s ability to pay are ususally the culmination of this ominus form of dispute resolution.
Not only are the awards binding, arbitration decisions can stretch well past the expiration of the old contract. That makes it more difficult to accurately project expenditures and balance budgets in the interim.
Police and fire unions contend that the law safeguards the public by keeping public safety workers on the job when the collective bargaining process breaks down. It’s a specious, insulting argument.
Strikes by public employees are both illegal and unprofessional. Even work stoppages, euphemistically called “blue flu” in which police and fire personnel strategically withhold services, suggest a callous disregard for, and an unconscionable threat to public safety.
AWOL firefighters run the risk of the city going up in flame. Cops who take to the streets give law-abiding citizens the impression that disrespect for the law pays better dividends than compliance with it. Thus, the mere talk of a strike cast police and fire personnel as enemies rather than protectors.
What should be non-negotiable are the findings of contempt, fines and jail time imposed on union leadership who are inclined to violate state law.
The demands on cities are so great and resources so constricted that their long term survival hinges on having maximum flexibility to resolve contractual disputes. While yielding no immediate savings, gutting PA 312 could be an important step toward containing costs as cities try to work their way out of budget holes. No employee group should be sacrosanct.
Fiscal responsibility, after all, is a fundamental imperative of government. The safety valve for employees is their ability to air grievances with the contractual and budget decisions of their elected representatives in the voting booth.
Freedom from excessive awards will come from repealing the law, not through begging arbitrators for leniency. At stake is the eventual bankruptcy of cities, villages and townships. That could mean the Legislature would be on the hook to bail out struggling municipalities with taxpayer dollars rather than sensible law.