State panel limits union bargaining for state workers

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A state panel adopted a new rule Wednesday limiting what issues state employee unions can include in collective bargaining agreements with the state over objections from organized labor.

The Michigan Civil Service Commission voted 3-1 to strip a host of non-financial conditions that were previously part of contract negotiations between the state and unions for state employees. The new rules adopted Wednesday prohibit staff position assignments, transfers, scheduling, overtime and other factors from being part of the collective bargaining process.

“The commission bowed to political pressure and took the freedom from 35,000 state employees to negotiate together for efficient government with important job protections like overtime pay, seniority, and grievances,” said United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, one of whose locals has the largest number of state employees.

“These rigged rule changes which will go into effect in 2019, will give the governor more power to dictate working conditions by filling vital positions with unskilled political appointments instead of well-trained professionals who have dedicated their careers to serving Michiganders.”

The statement came after hundreds of union protesters gathered Wednesday morning outside of the meeting hall to protest the proposed rule change.

“We do work that affects every single household in the state of Michigan, whether it’s the roads that we build or the families we protect,” said Dannial Rogers, 35, who processes food aid benefits for the Department of Health and Human Services in Newaygo County. “So the way that we are treated and the way that we are protected by our unions affects everybody else, and people don’t realize that.”

Commission member Jase Bolger, a Republican and former House speaker who helped push through the state’s right-to-work law, said the current rules are not designed to promote state workers based on merit and said the change will make government more efficient.

The state’s current seniority rule “means to me that time in the union matters more than experience on the job,” said Bolger, who called attacks on the overhaul “detached from reality and built on political scare tactics.”

He and other supporters say the new rule streamlines contract negotiations.

“It simply adjusts how the collective bargaining process works within that system,” said commissioner Janet McClelland.

Opponents said one change that is particularly egregious allows pay agreements within a state contract to be breached if the governor declares a budget emergency.

Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said that “essentially eviscerates the meaningfulness of collective bargaining in many situations.”

Union members and Democrats criticized the overhaul as another attack on workers after Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation in 2012 taking away the union authority to require that workers pay dues.

They also said it would lead to a new era of nepotism because the new rules give managers more discretion in deciding who gets a certain assignment and who gets overtime work.

Civil Service Commission spokesman Matthew Fedorchuk said bumping is still determined by seniority, but seniority is now defined as “an employee’s continuous service.”

Three commission members, including Bolger and retired Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO James Barrett, were appointed by Snyder and voted for the change. Robert Swanson, an appointee of Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her former director of the Department of Labor and Economic Growth, expressed sympathy for the union pleas.

“I think that’s a dangerous way to go. Make no mistake, these rule changes are an attack on state employees and collective bargaining,” Swanson said, explaining his opposition to the rule changes.

Union leaders said the shift marks the latest display of disrespect for workers.

“Oh my Lord, isn’t there a way to make it work? There has to be. But it starts again with that mutual trust that we’re equals,” said Larry Roehrig, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME Council 25. “If we’re not equals then just come out and tell us; we’re big folk we can get it. But if we are, then let’s start acting like it.”

“Don’t slam our fingers in the door. We’re trying to hold it open for you,” he said.