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What Is the Future for Michigan's Public Employee Unions?

Ending special union bargaining status for public employees has been a topic across the Great Lakes where Republican governors are preparing to take office.

What would have to happen in Michigan for such a thing to occur here?

As it turns out, the public policy path is very direct, according to Paul Kersey, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Kersey outlined what Michigan would have to do to free itself of public sector union negotiations:

To restrict the influence of state workers’ unions, the governor would have to appoint a new Civil Service Commission that would re-write its work rules and eliminate collective bargaining – the negotiations between government employers and unions.

State police troopers have their bargaining rights tied to a constitutional amendment. To undo that would require one of the following:

Both chambers of the state Legislature, with 2/3 majorities, could place a measure on the ballot to repeal the troopers’ collective bargaining. The voters would need to approve it.

Or, citizens could circulate petitions and put such a proposal on the ballot.

To make such a change for local government unions, including the Michigan Education Association, it would simply require an act of legislature signed by the governor, Kersey said.

“You could do it,” Kersey said. “The problem isn’t the policy. The problem is the politics. You are dealing with the most powerful, entrenched interests in the state.

They’ve wedged themselves in and it’s going to be a huge pain to get them out.”

Other states are trying to go there.

In Ohio, Republican Governor-Elect John Kasich said dismantling the law that allows collective bargaining by public unions will be a top priority.

Wisconsin Republican Governor-Elect Scott Walker said last week he’d consider abolishing state employee unions to save money.

In 2005, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels issued an executive order ending the state’s policy of collectively bargaining with government employee unions.

Michigan Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, said he thinks right-to-work legislation has to be on the top of the GOP agenda.

He said getting the state out of negotiations with public sector unions “is something I’d be willing to look at.”

“I don’t know if the governor in his first term will have the guts to attack right off the bat. … There’d be a lot of people screaming about it. … Our government unions, their health care and their retirement are just out of whack with society.”

National experts say it wouldn’t be easy to succeed in Michigan.

“It’s a political question,” said Steve Malanga, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “You have a highly unionized state in Michigan. It would be very difficult.”

Interestingly, Malanga said knocking out collective bargaining with Michigan’s public sector unions could take the cooperation of their private sector brethren.

He pointed to New Jersey’s Stephen Sweeney as an example. Sweeney is a Democratic state senator who is also the general organizer for the International Association of Ironworkers. When Sweeney supported cutting state workers’ pay and benefit in lieu of approving a one-cent sales text increase, it was reported that some state workers placed a large inflatable rat outside his workplace.

Malanga sees a type of class warfare going on between public and private sector unions.

“Private sector unions are rising against the public sector,” Malanga said. “They realize they are paying the bill.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.