Jan 27, 2010

Republicans go after police officers and firefighters

The first hearing of the newly formed Senate Reform and Restructuring Committee today to consider Senate Republicans so-called government reform package of bills turned out to be nothing more than two hours of union bashing.

Last week the so-called government reforms the Senate Republicans introduced were nothing more than pay cuts that will kill collective bargaining in Michigan. They are calling for a constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot in August to require government workers to take a 5 percent pay cut and pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums. But the one that has flown under the radar and was the focus of almost all the testimony on Wednesday was Senate Bill 1072 that would amend PA 312 of 1969 that allows compulsory arbitration of labor disputes for municipal police and fire departments.

Because police officers and firefighters are essential to public safety, they are not allowed to go out on strike like other bargaining units can, so this gives them a tool in negotiating a contract. PA 312 is the foundation of collective bargaining rights for firefighters and police officers in Michigan, and since 1969 PA 312 has provided a fair and equitable process for contract disputes between firefighters and police officers and municipalities. PA 312 is intended as a last resort in negotiations, not as a bargaining tool.

But the Michigan Municipal League (MML) that represents city and village officials wants to kill it. They blame PA 312 for layoffs and bankruptcies instead of falling property values and reduced revenue sharing, and they cannot produce a single instance where it caused a municipality to go into receivership. The good news is SB 1072 does not go that far.

The bill would clarify that arbitrators must look at a city's ability to pay – something the act already does - and compare the city's other employees to police and fire officials when deciding if salary and other requests are fair. Somehow, I don’t believe a city clerical worker faces the same dangers as a police officer or firefighter.

The hearing was all one-sided, and all of the testimony was from the MML, mayors, city managers and township officials. Not a single union member, police officer or firefighter was allowed to speak.

In response to a question on how many cases of arbitration there were is the past year, the MML declined to answer, only saying they have decreased, but the official said there was no way to “measure the threat of arbitration.” When pressed for an answer by a Democratic member of the committee, the MML official admitted it was only five. That’s right; five cases are bankrupting local government.

As for the threat of arbitration, it’s no different than the threat of a strike, so if they remove PA 312, does that mean police and fire can now strike? Somehow I doubt that.

This is such a farce, and it’s just one more weapons the Republicans are wielding to kill unions, drive wages and benefits down and kill the middle class.

The committee did not take any votes, and it is expected to meet again next Wednesday morning.

The MML is right in that the number of cases of arbitration are going down, and that’s because all municipal bargaining units have sacrificed and made concessions to help balance the budget. The non-partisan Citizens Research Council says an average of only about 33 cases a year go to arbitration – about 8 percent of fire and police debarments, and of those cases, the municipalities are successful 71 percent of the time.

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