The Corner

Michigan on the Waterfront

A union-backed ballot initiative in Michigan could overturn two decades of state reforms. Michigan’s Proposal 2 would “grant public and private employees a state constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively through labor unions,” and “invalidate existing or future state or local laws that limit the ability to join unions and bargain collectively.”

Sounds innocuous, right? No wonder Prop 2 currently leads in the polls. Unfortunately, its consequences would be anything but innocuous. Collective bargaining means more than workers and management talking together. It also gives unions a legal monopoly on the workplace: Employers may hire workers only on union terms; potential employees may not work under a different contract, etc.

This gives unions enormous leverage — nothing gets done unless they agree to it. In the private sector, competition forces unions to use their power responsibly. Asking for too much will bankrupt their employers.

Government unions face no such limits. They bargain over how taxes get spent, and taxes can always go up. So they take as much as they can. The Michigan legislature has kept government-union demands in line by limiting what they can bargain over.

Proposal 2 removes all such limits on government compensation, benefits, and work rules. It elevates government-union contracts above state law. Michigan’s attorney general finds the proposal would repeal, in whole or in part, 170 state laws. Government unions would have to agree to laws restricting their compensation — not a likely prospect.

This is why government unions have lead the campaign for Prop 2. Unions representing government employees provided three-quarters of the $8 million raised to support it. A leaked memo shows they anticipate Prop. 2 voiding laws:

  • Requiring government employees to pay 20 percent of their healthcare premiums;

  • Basing raises and layoffs on performance instead of seniority;

  • Allowing school districts to set their own disciplinary policies; and

  • Allowing schools to contract with private companies (often employing nonunion employees) for food and janitorial services;

The Mackinac Center estimates voiding these laws would cost Michigan taxpayers at least $1.6 billion a year, and future elected legislatures could not reinstate them.

A government whose citizens cannot control its costs is not exactly democratic. The union movement once agreed: In 1959 the AFL-CIO Executive Council declared that “In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress  –  a right available to every citizen.”

Now Michigan unions want their collective-bargaining powers elevated above democratic self-rule. This is not a recipe for good government.

— James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation.

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