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Policy reasons for exempting police, fire from Right to Work remain unclear

Michigan’s new Right to Work law presents a huge challenge to the future of unions in a state known as the home of the modern labor movement.

But not for the approximately 1,700 bargaining units representing thousands of local police officers and firefighters in Michigan.

Lawmakers who rammed RTW bills through the Legislature during the lame duck session last week chose to exempt those unions from the controversial legislation, citing a 1969 law that prohibits police officers and firefighters from striking.

The law, known as Public Act 312, also mandates binding arbitration in the event of an impasse in contract negotiations.

State Police troopers and sergeants also are exempt from RTW because their collective bargaining rights were written into the state constitution.

The carve-outs for police and firefighter unions – which are unique among RTW states according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation -- have raised questions about fairness with other public sector unions, political favoritism and the potential impact of the exemption on local government budgets.

“Our position is, given conditions we work under, we believe we are held to a higher standard than the average labor union,” said Dave Hiller, legislative chairman of the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 7,000 police offers in the sate.

"There’s no more ‘blue flu’ like we had in the 1960s. No strikes are allowed under Public Act. 312,” Hiller said.

Conflicting positions on strike explanation

Legislative leaders say the special restrictions on local police and fire unions merited their exemption from RTW.

“It goes back to Public Act 312,” said Ari Adler, a spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall. “Police officers and firefighters are prohibited from striking, and they don’t strike.”

One of Bolger’s brothers is a state trooper and his father is a retired state trooper. But Adler said that had nothing to do with the exemption for local police offers and firefighters.

“Speaker Bolger would not make decisions about such a thing like right to work simply because he has family that are state troopers,” Adler said.

Teacher unions, which were not exempted from RTW, also are banned from striking under state law. But Adler said unlike police and firefighters, teachers sometimes test the law.

“Teachers have been known to strike,” he said.

Bill Ballenger, a former lawmaker and the publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said there likely was a political calculation by the Legislature to exempt police officer and firefighter unions from RTW.

“Absolutely,” he said. “If you’re a politician you don’t want to be running for office with police and firefighters against you.”

Ballenger said police and firefighter unions don’t spend on lot on political activity, but they do make much-sought-after endorsements of candidates for public office.

“They’ve always been a breed apart,” he said. “They pretty much keep their noses to the grindstone and do their jobs. But both parties covet the support of the police and firefighter unions.”

The local police and firefighter unions largely sat out the fight over Proposal 2, which would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. Voters defeated the measure.

No police or fire union showed up in the top 30 financial backers of the pro-Proposal 2 campaign, according to an analysis by Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. By contrast, the Michigan Education Association and some of its affiliates dotted the top 30 list and provided more than $3 million in backing for Prop 2.

Police and firefighter groups have given regularly to the political accounts of Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, over the last decade, but not in huge amounts, MCFN found.

Since 2008, Bolger’s campaign fund has received just over $6,000 from police and fire groups.

Craig Ruff, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants, said lawmakers might have decided it would be too difficult to change Public Act 312 in their lame duck session while pushing through RTW and a plethora of other bills.

“You can’t amend (Public Act 312) by reference,” he said. “You have to go into multiple statutes and make changes in them.”

Local police and firefighters may have benefited in the RTW debate by the constitutional protection of collective bargaining rights afforded state troopers and sergeants.

“One could make a logical extension that all public safety workers at the local level should be similarly carved out for Right to Work,” Ruff said.

Local governments brace for changes

Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young introduced the bill that ultimately became Public Act 312 while serving as a state senator.

Young thought the binding arbitration would save money for Detroit and other cities struggling to contact labor costs. But exactly the opposite happened, prompting Young to lay off hundreds of police officers in the late 1970s when the cash-strapped city lost several arbitration decisions.

Experts say it’s unclear what the RTW exemption for police officer and firefighters will mean for the budgets of local governments.

The bargaining power of public safety unions, unchanged by RTW, could be offset by the potentially weakened position of other public sector unions covered by the new law, said Tom Ivacko at the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy.

“My gut sense is that this will play out slowly over time,” he said. “The bigger impact on local government budgets could be a result of the recent changes to Public Act 312.”

Last year, lawmakers enacted changes to Public Act 312 that, among other things, makes a community’s ability to pay the primary factor an arbitrator must consider in an arbitration.

The changes also allow arbitrators to compare wages and benefits of police and firefighters to other public employees in a community and set a 180-day time limit on negotiations.

“We believe we’ve done our part to work with cities, counties, townships and the administration in these hard times,” said Hiller, adding that his union is opposed to RTW.

Police and firefighters rallied at the Capitol last year against those changes in Public Act 312, but ultimately reached agreement with the Legislature.

“Over 1,000 police and firefighters came to Lansing and protested the bills,” Adler said. “But we ended up with a strong bipartisan vote.”

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.

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