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Home News  No Labor Day for Michigan unions, either
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Wednesday, March 2,2011

No Labor Day for Michigan unions, either

by Kyle Melinn

This isn’t paranoia. Organized labor is under attack, and not just in Wisconsin.


Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature aren’t talking about ending public employees’ collective bargaining rights like their GOP friends across the big pond. Instead, they’re setting so many little fires, labor unions are being forced to split up to put them all out.


Ending binding arbitration for local public safety offices. Repealing prevailing wage. Allowing city managers and school superintendents to cancel labor contracts. Asking for $180 million in concessions from state workers.


And these are just the big items. Every day since Punxsutawney Phil missed his shadow, the Republican-led state House has cooked up another creative way to screw labor.


Today it’s taking collective bargaining off the table in local construction contracts where special state tax breaks are involved. Yesterday it was banning teachers from getting a slight pay increase while their expired contract is still being negotiated.


Tomorrow? We can only guess.


We do know this: House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, and his 62 Republican colleagues are thanking the Michigan Chamber of Commerce for the millions they spent in competitive House races last year with a big, wet sloppy kiss.


Organized labor responded with three fairly large rallies at the state Capitol last week, something that’s almost unheard of in this town.


Not all of these measures are getting signed into law. A bill to repeal binding arbitration for public safety officers, for example, will pass the Senate only over Majority Leader Randy Richardville’s dead body.


Much of this is saber rattling. The R’s watched the D’s pass all sorts of stomach-churning "business unfriendly" stuff in the House these last four years. A bit of this is pay back.


At least 70 percent of it is a divide-and-conquer distraction that even Snyder isn’t interested in seeing come to his desk. At the end of the day, the R’s really only want those changes in state law that the State Budget office will count against the state’s $1.4 billion budget hole.


In order, they include:


Expanding the power of local emergency financial mangers to cancel or amend labor contracts.


More cities and school districts are going broke, something Snyder and state Treasurer Andy Dillon don’t want. Bankruptcy hurts the credit rating of neighboring cities and the state, but it allows local officials to play around with previously agreed-to wages and benefits. Eliminating that temptation — particularly when he’s cutting local revenue sharing another $100 million and schools by 4 percent — is No. 1 on the Legislature’s agenda. The House bill gives emergency financial managers contract re-write powers, but a Senate version takes it a step further and just gives this power directly to superintendents and city managers in empty-pocketed schools and cities.


Squeezing another $180 million in concessions from state employees.


Reading between the lines, its clear Snyder wants all state employees to cover 20 percent of their health care costs (as opposed to 10 percent), but that only gets you part-way there. Where is the rest coming from? Snyder told state employees in a letter Friday he "will recognize the collective bargaining process" in asking for givebacks. He also didn’t pull the $180 million number out of thin air. He has ideas on where state employees can give back. One way or the other, he’s going to get them, too.


Changing the state’s binding arbitration law.


Not even Tea Party-backed Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, wants to eliminate the law that lets an independent mediator work out labor differences between local government officials and their police officers and fire fighters. What the Legislature really wants is to change the law so that when two police or fire departments consolidate, everybody gets the higher salary and best benefit package of the two. The locals wanted this change last session and nearly got it. The year 2011 may be a different story.


Challenging the Civil Service Commission.


This quadrant of Jennifer Granholm leftovers is making life difficult for Snyder and the Legislature by rejecting last year’s 3 percent mandatory state employee contribution to future retiree health care costs and allowing live-in boyfriends and girlfriends (among others) of state employees to receive state benefits. Bolger wants the commission, an artifact of the 1930s, gone but he needs a constitutional amendment to do that. Instead, he and Snyder will have to rely on the Republican-leaning Supreme Court to read the law with red-tinted glasses.


It could be worse. Michigan could have gotten Republican Mike Bouchard as its governor and be fighting a "Right to Work" battle right now. But that’s little solace for public workers and card-carrying union laborers who see their jobs and their way of life under attack.


(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He can be reached at melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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