When economic times are difficult, as they presently are, the need for a stabilizing law, like the Compulsory Arbitration Act, is paramount. The Compulsory Arbitration Act safeguards the public by avoiding public safety work stoppages, thereby maintaining a proper balance between employee morale and the efficient operation of police and fire departments.
In the 1960’s, municipal employees in the State of Michigan were permitted the right to bargain labor contracts pursuant to the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA). However, at the time PERA was passed, no final remedy or dispute resolution protocol was included for those instances when the parties failed to reach a negotiated settlement. PERA did not permit public employee strikes, and strikes remained unlawful.
In the early days of police officer negotiations in Detroit and in some suburban communities, frustration resulted from the inability of police officers to reach negotiated settlements. The results were unlawful strikes euphemistically called “blue flu. ” Consequently, the legislature reacted to the legitimate concerns that police officers and firefighters might withhold services and threaten public safety. The Michigan Legislature went to work to provide a remedy that would keep public safety employees from striking. That result was Michigan’s compulsory arbitration law, Public Act 312 of 1969, which required police, firefighters and public employers to forego traditional actions such as strikes, walk-outs and lockouts. A panel of arbitrators would ultimately determine a final and binding decision on lingering contract disputes. The notion of compulsory arbitration in lieu of a strike emanated from War Labor Board dispute remedies that developed during World War II in the private sector. Binding arbitration replaced the right to strike in private sector industries that served the military and the war effort.
The most succinct description of the goals of Act 312 is contained in the introductory language of the Act itself.
423.231 Compulsory arbitration in police and fire departments; policy. Sec. 1. It is the public policy of this state that in public police and fire departments, where the right of employees to strike is by law prohibited, it is requisite to the high morale of such employees and the efficient operation of such departments to afford an alternate, expeditious, effective and binding procedure for the resolution of disputes, and to that end the provisions of this act, providing for compulsory arbitration, shall be liberally construed. This language of Act 312 explains the intent of Michigan’s lawmakers.
It specifically acknowledges compulsory arbitration as the quid pro quo for no strikes. Unions in the private sector are free to strike to secure what they believe is a reasonable or appropriate labor contract. However, the public interest would be poorly served by public safety employees going on strike. The ability of public safety employees to arbitrate provides an equalizer with their fellow workers in the private sector.
The results of Michigan’s compulsory arbitration law for police officers and firefighters have been extraordinarily successful. Since the passage of Act 312, there have been no police or firefighter strikes over traditional contract negotiations.
If there is any doubt about the success of the Act, compare the history of public safety employee strikes with that of teacher strikes over the same period. The same act, PERA, that permitted police officers to bargain also allowed teachers to bargain. However, teachers are not required to arbitrate under the public safety compulsory arbitration law. As a result, while police officers and firefighters settled their disputes without strikes, teachers ravaged school boards and parents with unlawful strikes that disrupted the school year and threatened the fiscal health of school districts.
The gains of police officers in arbitration are limited by the statutory criteria of the compulsory arbitration law. History reveals the most compelling criteria upon which arbitrators have based their opinions are 1) comparison of the results of voluntary negotiated settlements in other communities; 2) the “cost of living “; and 3) the employer’s ability to pay. There are no corollary boundaries governing leverage that teachers can wield while striking. Extorted settlements from school boards frequently resulted in teacher contracts which greatly outstripped the gains of police officers. Public Act 312 is settled law that has served the public faithfully. When Act 312 was initially passed by the legislature, it did not cover state police. However, when the public was asked to change the state constitution to grant arbitration to the state police several years later, it passed overwhelmingly. In effect, Michigan voters ratified the wisdom and action of the legislature in its construction of Act 312.
To this date, Act 312 has provided a fair, workable and practical method of maintaining the public safety of our citizens by eliminating work stoppages or similar job actions.