News Story

Where Michigan’s Public Sector Union Laws Rank

Recent reforms earn a 'B' on national report card

The state of Michigan earned a B rating for its public sector labor laws in a study produced by a Pennsylvania-based free-market think tank. The ranking comes after a half-decade of labor law reforms passed by Michigan’s legislators and governor.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s study, titled “Transforming Labor: A Comprehensive, Nationwide Comparison and Grading of Public Sector Labor Laws,” measured how labor laws affect citizens, taxpayers, workers and government budgets.

The study found that right-to-work laws alone – which have now been adopted by 26 states, including Michigan – are not necessarily the best indicator of workers’ freedom.

In addition to right-to-work, the study used 11 separate indicators to rate each state’s labor laws. These included: the legality and scope of public sector collective bargaining; so-called union release time policies; binding arbitration mandates; legality of public employee strikes; contract negotiation transparency; union certification by current workers; workers' ability to opt-out our union membership; and so-called agency fees and paycheck protection provisions.

In Michigan, public employee unions have the privilege of requiring government employers to engage in good-faith collective bargaining. They can force employers to negotiate over wages, fringe benefits, hours and more, but the law also contains specific items over which bargaining is prohibited (such as school board decisions to outsource non-core services).

Michigan’s public employee unions are also granted the privilege (and duty) of being the exclusive bargaining agent for all employees in a government workplace. They are also exempt from having to periodically obtain current workers’ agreement to this status, called certification.

Michigan law does not prohibit union officials from being carried on public payrolls, a practice called “release time” that effectively means getting paid by taxpayers to do union work. The law also imposes on governments a mandate that they use binding arbitration during contract impasses with police and fire departments. Many local officials say the requirement is responsible for excessive pay and benefit costs.

On the other side of the ledger, public employee strikes are illegal in Michigan. Public schools here are also prohibited from automatically deducting union dues and fees from employees’ paychecks.

In addition to adopting a Michigan right-to-work law, the 2011-12 Legislature adopted a broad slate labor law reforms. Among them:

- A ban on municipal “minimum staffing requirements” that can drive up costs;

- A ban on public schools laying off more-effective younger teachers ahead of less-effective ones with more seniority;

- Prohibiting school staffing and employee placement decisions from being included in collective bargaining subjects;

- Capping the cost of government employee health insurance benefits; and

- Prohibiting seniority-based pay hikes to school and government employees (known as “step increases”) if the previous union contract has expired and no new one has been signed.

More recent reforms include not requiring colleges and universities to engage in collective bargaining with student-athletes unions; stricter sanctions on illegal teacher strikes; and a pre-emption of local ordinances or rules that impose wage, benefit, or leave time mandates that exceed state or federal requirements.

Some important reforms are still waiting for final action. One is Senate Bill 280, which would ban release time for union officials. Another, Senate Bill 279, would ban a union pension spiking scheme employed by every recent president of the state’s largest teachers union.

Finally, several efforts have fallen short to repeal a prevailing wage law that prohibits awarding government contracts to contractors that submit the lowest bid unless they use union job categories and pay scales.

F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said “allowing elected and appointed officials full control over policy and how our tax dollars are spent” should be at the forefront of the state’s labor policy.

“One of the most comprehensive rankings of state labor laws shows how far Michigan has come and yet there is still a way for the state to go in putting taxpayers and citizens ahead of the special interests,” he said.

No state or local governments are required by federal law to engage in collective bargaining with their employees. Three states that received the report's highest grade — Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina — ban the practice for all government employees. Five others have partial bans that also earned them top grades. They were Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.

Michigan was one of seven states that earned a B grade, the others being Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Mississippi, North Dakota, and West Virginia.

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.