Q&A On New Collective Bargaining Laws

New laws on collective bargaining are in the spotlight across the Great Lakes. In the past few weeks, Michigan, Wisconsin and now Ohio have taken steps to limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. Indiana and Illinois are having their own debates. How do the measures compare, and what could come next? Our friends at PBS Newshour have the latest, and Changing Gears answers your questions.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Jeremy M. Farmer.

Q: Why is there such a focus on collective bargaining rights for public employees?

A: Budget crises and politics. Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin all face large budget deficits, and their new Republican governors have laid out proposals that include wide-ranging cuts. In Wisconsin and Ohio, Gov. Scott Walker and Gov. John Kasich campaigned on promises to limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees, saying that would give the state and its communities the greatest flexibility to cut costs.

Unions, on the other hand, have seen these efforts as a matter of political philosophy rather than cost-saving measures. They say these politicians have used unions as a scapegoat for deeper problems caused by the weak economy.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder has avoided calling for the elimination of public employee  collective bargaining rights, although he has proposed steep spending cuts in his state budget proposal. But, he still signed a law affecting some public employees.

Q: What has each state done? (Thanks to Tracy Moavero for the question)

A: In Wisconsin, Walker signed legislation that eliminates collective bargaining rights for most state employees, with the exception of police and firefighters. The legislation originally was contained in a broader budget proposal, but Democratic lawmakers left the state in order to prevent a vote on that bill. After days of vehement protests at the state capitol, the appropriations provisions were stripped from the bill. That led to passage of the new law.

In Ohio, the legislature appears on the verge of final passage for Senate Bill 5. The state House approved an amended version on Wednesday that may soon go to Kasich for his signature. (Our partner ideastream has the latest.) It will limit collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public employees, including police and fire personnel. Unions can negotiate wages, hours and working conditions, but cannot bargain collectively for benefits. It also eliminates binding arbitration and bars public employees from striking. State employees can decline to pay union dues, and vote more easily to decertify a union.

In Michigan, Snyder signed legislation providing sweeping new authority to emergency managers, state-appointed administrators who take charge of the operations of a troubled community or its school system. Three communities — Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor — have emergency managers, as does the Detroit school system.

Under the law, the emergency managers have the authority in 2012 to cancel provisions in contracts covering public employees. An emergency manager can request to have an entire contract thrown out, and a decision would be made in conjunction with the state’s treasurer. (Michigan’s treasurer is Andy Dillon, a Democrat, who was speaker of the Michigan House.)

Q: What kind of workers are affected by the new laws? (Thanks to Amanda Black)

In Wisconsin, about 420,000 people are employed by the federal, state and local governments, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Federal employees are not affected by the new law, and estimates are that Wisconsin has about 175,000 state and local public employees. Walker excluded most public safety officers from his proposal, saying that the state had to ensure its residents’ security.

In Michigan, the law affects only employees in communities that are run by a state-appointed emergency manager. For Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor, that means public works employees, animal control officers and others. Detroit has approximately 5,000 full-time teachers affected by the law.

Ohio’s public employees include police, fire, teachers, school custodians and many other types of jobs.

Q: What has been the reaction?

A: The Wisconsin law was immediately challenged in the courts. A judge issued and renewed a restraining order blocking its implementation. But Walker has implemented some of its provisions, including one that stops payroll systems from automatically removing union dues from public employee checks. State officials say they do not think the courts can enjoin the new law.

However, Walker said Thursday the state would stop implementing provisions of the law pending the outcome in the courts.

In Michigan, unions have staged protests outside Snyder’s office over the emergency manager law, which he signed over the objections of Michigan Democratic lawmakers.


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