Deputy Sheriffs’ Union Severed In Two

Michigan’s collective bargaining law prohibits public employees from striking. As a tradeoff for the prohibition against striking in police and fire disputes, the Michigan Legislature created a system of binding arbitration as the last step in the negotiations process. Only certain employees are eligible for arbitration, specifically “employees engaged as policemen, or in fire fighting or subject to the hazards thereof, emergency medical service personnel employed by a police or fire department, or an emergency telephone operator employed by a police or fire department.”

The Oakland County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association represented a bargaining unit of approximately 750 uniformed employees of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department. Three hundred and fifty of the employees were deputy sheriffs; the remainder were primarily corrections officers. When the Association and the County were unable to reach agreement on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement, the County refused to proceed to arbitration on the entire bargaining unit.

The Association then filed an unfair labor practice charge against the County seeking arbitration. The County responded by seeking to “clarify” the existing bargaining unit and declare certain groups of employees ineligible for arbitration. The Michigan Employment Relations Commission granted the County’s motion and severed the union into two separate bargaining units, only one of which – the deputies’ bargaining unit – would be eligible for binding arbitration.

The Association challenged the Commission’s decision in the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Court upheld the decision to sever the unions.

The Court found that the Commission provided adequate factual support for its conclusion that severance was appropriate under the circumstances. The Commission explained that “the parties’ collective bargaining agreement expired in 2003. This has left the parties frozen in place, with no immediate mechanism for adjusting conditions of employment. The bargaining process itself has been skewed by the inability of the parties to agree, or otherwise resolve, which groups of employees are covered by which dispute resolution mechanism. The intractable nature of the dispute between the parties is evidenced by the filing of an extraordinary number of unfair labor practice charges.”

The Court cited with approval the Commission’s justification for severing the two units: “The two separate units may continue to be represented by the Association, which will act separately on behalf of each unit. The employer will be able to bargain separate agreements with the two units without having issues that should properly be limited to one group impinging on negotiations involving the other. We find it appropriate to direct the severing of the existing unit in order to foster more productive bargaining and to thereby effectuate the purposes of the Act.”

Oakland County v. Oakland County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, 2009 WL 258198 (Mich.App. 2009).

This article appears in the March 2009 issue