Communities Controlling Their Own Costs
PA 312 and Mandatory Binding Arbitration
Source: The Detroit News
Editorial: Mayors, not judges, should run our cities
Supreme Court should allow Detroit, Pontiac to proceed with layoffs
Monday, November 26, 2007
Voters elect mayors and city council members to balance city budgets and make tough decisions -- including layoffs of such vital employees as firefighters. To the extent that the law allows it, the Michigan Supreme Court ought to let the elected policymakers -- not courts, unions or arbitrators -- run cities.
The court this month heard oral arguments in two cases involving layoffs of firefighters; one from Detroit and one from Pontiac.
In both instances, the financially strapped cities sought to lay off firefighters to balance their budgets. The wisdom of these decisions can be argued. But at least the elected officials can be held accountable for their decisions.
In Pontiac, the city proposed the layoff of a number of employees, including firefighters, in June 2006. The firefighters' union filed suit, contending that the firings were an unfair labor practice. A trial court issued an injunction forbidding the layoffs until there could be a ruling by the Michigan Employment Relations Commisson or an arbitrator under Act 312, which forbids police and fire strikes but also requires mandatory arbitration.
In Detroit, the city reorganized the Fire Department in 2005, which included the layoff of some firefighters, to deal with its budget problems. Its layoffs were enjoined as well. The union argued that since the city was involved in an Act 312 arbitration, the layoffs should be an issue.
Both injunctions have been upheld by the Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court decided to take the cases. The Michigan Municipal League, among others, has submitted legal briefs supporting the cities' arguments.
The real issue is this: If elected city officials can't decide something as basic as how many police officers or firefighters will be on their payrolls, they can't control their biggest costs. Labor contracts and arbitration agreements ought to deal with how much public safety officers will be paid, the amount of hours will be in their shifts, and their health and retirement benefits.
But the legal process can't be used to dictate basic staffing decisions or tie up layoffs for years and cost citizens millions of dollars. Prior court decisions have acknowledged this, noting that to grant labor unions the right to essentially block this kind of decision raises fundamental problems of public accountability.
It may be that these layoffs are bad policy choices. But that's something the voters of Detroit and Pontiac should decide through their votes on local taxes and city officials.