Feb 4, 2010

GOP attack on police officers and firefighters continues

LANSING -- The Senate Republicans continue to target police officers and firefighters with their union-busting bills disguised as government reform at the second hearing of the newly-formed Senate Reform and Restructuring Committee on Wednesday.

The union-bashing and anti-public employee political theatre calls for constitutional amendments 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 Senate Bill 1072 that that would amend PA 312 of 1969 that allows compulsory arbitration of labor disputes for municipal police and fire departments because they cannot strike was again the focus of the hearing.

Last week the Michigan Municipal League (MML) that represents city and village officials testified, along with municipal officials from city council members to township board members, blaming PA 312 for layoffs and bankruptcies instead of falling property values and reduced revenue sharing. The MML not only wants to amend PA 312, they want to do away with it completely.

Wednesday police officers and firefighters got their turn, and they debunked the claims of the MML with actual facts. The union members were neutral on SB 1072, but they wanted to set the record straight on PA 312.

David Hiller, a national vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the director of public safety for Grosse Pointe Park, said PA 312 has been great for both sides. He said police and fire unions can only negotiate pay, benefits and working conditions, and for the first three years after PA 312 was enacted more than half of the cases in arbitration were for non-economic issues.

“Prior to PA 312, we had nothing,” he said. “It was either take it or leave it.”

He said arbitration was rarely used and is still rare, and the municipality wins almost 80 percent of the cases that go to arbitration. Hiller said of the more than 1,500 unions eligible for arbitration, from 1998-2008 an average of only 20 cases a year went to arbitration.

Hiller said why fix something that’s not broken, but he also said the unions were not against improving it.

“It eliminates strikes and impasses,” Hiller said. “It equalizes things on both sides of the table.”

Opponents of PA 312 claim the arbitrators are not allowed to look at a municipality’s ability to pay when rendering a decision. That’s simply not true; they are well aware of the finances, not only that, but both sides are allowed to submit any kind of evidence or documents to make their claim.

“It was not so many years ago that when times were good they (municipalities) did not want ability to pay to be considered at arbitration,” said Terrence Chesney, the Secretary-Treasurer of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union.

Chesney said PA 312 is just being a scapegoat, and the number of arbitration cases prove that.

“It makes no sense to come running to the Legislature every year to say it needs changing,” he said. “I don’t buy into that, and the record shows that.”

Police and fire retirement expenses is levied as a special property tax in the City of Taylor, and many city officials have blamed PA 312 and arbitration for the high cost of pensions, but newly elected Mayor Jeff Lamarand, a former Council member, said the excessive generosity of the previous Mayor and not PA 312 was the cause. He was the only municipal official to not blame PA 312 for budget problems.

The committee took testimony of PA 312 for two hours, and they did not take a vote on any bills.

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