In Wisconsin and elsewhere, government employee unions are on the ropes as a result of a public sector reform movement led by governors and fed-up taxpayers. But in Michigan, these unions are fighting back with Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution and solidify unions’ control of the state budget.
In 2008, just as the Great Recession was beginning, half of all dollars spent by state and local governments went to employee wages and benefits. This unsustainable status quo, coupled with a steep drop in revenues during the downturn, forced state governors and lawmakers to come to terms with fiscal reality.
Unions have portrayed these changes as partisan attacks on working families. The reality is quite different. In states like Rhode Island and in progressive cities like San Jose, it was Democratic reformers that championed tough decisions on employee pensions. Even in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker’s collective bargaining reforms created a national firestorm, the data suggest that even public employees themselves weren’t fans of the status quo: When Wisconsin stopped deducting union dues from the paychecks of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union, over half decided to hold on to the cash and drop the union.
In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder has followed the lead of his colleagues in other states. Snyder eliminated the antiquated “last in, first out” layoff practice for teachers, a practice that favored teachers with seniority over better-performing teachers with less time on the job. He also asked that public sector workers take on 20 percent of the cost of their own health insurance premiums — still less than the average private sector employee.
But rather than adjust to the changing political and fiscal landscape, Michigan’s government employee unions have taken a different approach. Their Proposal 2 says, “No existing or future law of the state or its political subdivisions shall abridge, impair or limit” unions’ ability to “negotiate in good faith regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment …” This means that government employee unions would be above the law, out of reach from reformers in the elected legislature and the taxpayers who they represent. Instead, a collective bargaining agreement would stand above them all.
State Attorney General Bill Schuette says that Proposal 2 would undermine, in whole or in part, 170 already enacted laws. (One prime example is teacher disciplinary rules: rather than allowing the legislature to pass basic standards, local governments would have to bargain for them at the negotiating table.) Proposal 2 would also allow unions to overrule reforms passed by both Gov. Snyder and his predecessors that are projected to save Michigan taxpayers $1.6 billion annually.
This ballot initiative is the government-employee unions’ last and best hope to push back against Wisconsin-style reforms. But if Proposal 2 fails in Michigan, government-employee unions may be forced to recognize that their agenda doesn’t align with those of the reform leaders and the taxpayers who voted them into office.
F. Vincent Vernuccio is the director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. For more information on Proposal 2, please visit http://www.mackinac.org/17297.