LANSING, MI – As the capital prepares for thousands of demonstrators Tuesday on the right-to-work bills in the Legislature, their rallies and demonstrations will fall under the watch of union members of one profession that is being exempted from the legislation.
Gov. Rick Snyder and Republican legislative leaders say they’ve exempted 6,000 police and 5,000 firefighter union members from having a choice whether to financially support their union because of special collective bargaining rights in state law and the constitution.
They also expressed concerns about creating divisions within the paramilitary ranks of first responders who rely on each other in life-and-death situations.
As this epic political showdown nears, the motivating factors for what Snyder called a “carve out” for police and firefighters appear murky.
Some rank-and-file GOP lawmakers said there are other reasons why police and firefighters are getting a better deal than their union brethren who work in other dangerous jobs in prisons, construction and utilities.
“They behave more like value-adding trade associations than unions,” said state Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, the leading advocate for the drive to make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state.
Another reason cited: Republican legislators get fewer complaints about the political activities of police and firefighter union leadership than others who, for instance, represent unions with ties to the Democratic Party.
“I know a lot of people in both organizations, and they’re happy with how their unions treat them. They’re not clamoring for choice,” said state Rep. Jeff Farrington, R-Utica.
“Police and firefighters seem to focus on what their membership is looking for as a whole and advocating for and that’s the role of a union.”
A political force
Police and firefighters make up less than 2 percent of the state’s 671,000 unionized workers.
Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Lansing newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said the nature of their work can be a powerful political force in individual legislative districts, and their political action committees make campaign contributions to Democrat and Republican politicians alike.
In order to prevent strikes that could hinder public safety, police and firefighter unions have binding arbitration rights under Public Act 312 of 1969 that allows an independent arbitrator to settle contract disputes between workers and municipalities. Snyder, House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville each cited P.A. 312 as a legal impediment to putting police and firefighters under a right-to-work umbrella.
But labor attorneys say the way police and firefighter unions negotiate contracts is unrelated to whether union membership or fees are optional as envisioned under a right-to-work law.
“Act 312 is completely separate from anything these bills deal with,” said labor attorney Andrew Nickelhoff of the Detroit law firm Sachs Waldman, which has represented unions since the modern labor movement began in the mid-1920s.
Fear of divisions
Bolger, R-Marshall, said another reason for the exemption is the Michigan State Police have constitutional collective bargaining protections that could trump a right-to-work law. Labor attorneys agree the state police are untouchable, barring a constitutional amendment.
In arguing for a right-to-work law, Snyder and GOP leaders acknowledged it could create divisions in firehouses and police departments if union membership or fees was optional — as will become the case for all other unionized workplaces when Snyder signs the bill.
“These are men and women who must respond and rely on each other in ways no other union must,” said Speaker Pro-tem John Walsh, R-Livonia.
But other unionized workers who work on utility poles, high-rise steel construction and in county jails and state prisons also rely on co-workers to stay alive, Nickelhoff said.
“If that were really the reason, they would at least include corrections officers,” said Nickelhoff, general counsel of the Michigan State AFL-CIO. Despite the exemption, police and firefighter unions remain opposed to the bills, some officials said.
“We’re happy they are doing it, but they shouldn’t do it at all,” said Capt. Kevin Tomaszewski of the Wayne-Westland Fire Department.
From The Detroit News