Oct 28, 2002
One of the ballot proposals in Michigan was put there by the efforts of state workers and their union, the UAW. If passed, it would amend the state constitution, giving state workers part of the rights that workers in private industry already enjoy. It would require the state to engage in collective bargaining, for the purpose of negotiating a "binding collective bargaining agreement." And it would let the union submit unresolved matters to binding arbitration.
Given what's happened in Michigan in recent years, it's understandable why state workers are asking for these legal rights. Several times the Civil Service Commission has overturned parts of a contract that state negotiators had agreed on. The courts upheld the contention of the CSC that it held precedent over any contract terms that might have been negotiated.
Furthermore, since state workers are denied the right to strike, it's understandable that workers might hope at least that an arbitrator would sometimes take their side, so that they did not find themselves always at the mercy of the dictates of the state.
And of course, it's outrageous that workers for the state are denied rights that other unionized workers have. The state obviously believes that it does not have to respect laws that apply to other entities.
But it's necessary to remember that while some arbitrators do act in a neutral way, more often than not they don't. And even when they do attempt to be neutral, they don't start from the concerns and needs of the workers, but only from what has already been written in a contract.
And that contract is negotiated in a situation without workers having the right to strike.
It's obvious that state workers ought to have the rights denied to them. But it would be a mistake to believe that this referendum – even if passed – will offer state workers the protection that they need – protection they can get only through their own militant activity.
It would also be a mistake to believe that there is nothing the workers can do, just because the law says there is nothing. After all, if workers today have rights enshrined in the law, it's because at one time they took those rights for themselves, despite the law.