The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 08, 2012

State GOP looks to ban union time on public dime

By The Building Tradesman

LANSING – Public employers in Michigan would be prohibited from using tax dollars to pay union officials for time conducting union business, in a bill that surfaced May 23 in the Senate Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing Committee after being introduced in early 2011.

The state House (HB 4059) and Senate (SB 7) both have their own active versions of the bill. Both versions are an overt attempt to punish unions while not saving taxpayers a dime. A “fiscal impact” statement released May 24 by the Senate Fiscal Agency said:  “the bill would have no impact on State revenue or expenditures, or on local unit revenue.” Union leaders maintain that the legislation is another attempt by state Republicans to reduce union clout by issuing one-size-fits-all laws in Lansing that are better made by community leaders.

Among unions in the state, teachers represented by the American Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Education Association (MEA) would be among the most heavily impacted by the legislation. But there are numerous other public employee union members, including many from the building trades who are directly employed by municipalities, who would be affected by this legislation.

In testimony last year before a state House panel, Michigan AFL-CIO Legislative Director Michael Geller said “permitting union officials to become engaged early on in a problem will typically allow for a quicker and sometimes less costly resolution. The practice of paying union officials to conduct legitimate union business is currently a decision made between the employer and the local union. The decision whether to use paid time is made when both parties discuss the issue, weigh the costs and benefits and agree what the best practice is for their operation.”

The MEA released a statement in response to the legislation:

  • “HB 4059 is another attack on unions. There are only 12 large school districts that allow for a full-time release president to take care of union business. And in most cases, the union reimburses the district for any costs.”
  • “This is a local control issue. If the school district and the union determine that it’s helpful for the district to pay union officials to conduct union business, the issue can be negotiated at the bargaining table.”
  • “Many times, union business is school business. When problems arise, they can be resolved quickly during the day. The school district and the union benefits.”

Rep. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy), sponsor of the HB 4059, said the legislation is “fair. It doesn’t take away their (the union’s) ability to do certain things, it just says taxpayers should not be paying for them.”

But maybe not entirely fair: some public union workers may be seen as more equal than others by the GOP. One proposed substitute contained in the legislation would exempt law enforcement, firefighters, first-responders, corrections or public safety dispatchers “if the requested time off is needed to assist all of the following issues: grievances, critical incidents, contract negotiations, and officer-involved incidences.”

It’s no coincidence that cops and firefighters are often Republican voters, and this bill would carve out a separate standing for them.

Teachers unions have been a special – but hardly exclusive – target of Republican lawmakers in Lansing. In March, Gov. Snyder signed a Republican-backed bill that prevents local school districts from collecting union dues from employee paychecks. It’s a move that will likely cost school districts money because of extra bookkeeping, and teachers union leaders maintained the law was political retribution for union support of a recall drive of a Republican lawmaker in Genesee County.

In addition, “reforms” to the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System reform pushed through by Senate Republicans last month would move all new school hires away from traditional pension plans in favor of a 401k plan. Senate Democrats pointed to a nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency study that said changing the plan and keeping existing workers under the pension plan would cost the state about $300 million annually. The state Office of Retirement Systems estimates that the plan as passed could cost the state an additional $2 billion to $3 billion over the next two decades.