Quick quiz: What's the purpose of the "Public Safety
Employer-Employee Cooperation Act"? It recently passed the House by
a large margin.
With a title like that, one would expect that the bill has
something to do with facilitating cooperation between public safety
workers and their employers. This being Congress, though, the bill
naturally does something completely different. It requires all
state and local governments to recognize public sector unions as
the exclusive representative of their police officers, firefighters
and emergency medical personnel.
Most states and local governments already do this, and large
majorities of policemen and firefighters are already covered by
union collective bargaining agreements. However, a minority of
states and localities negotiate contracts individually with their
public safety employees. The act would force them to collectively
negotiate with a union instead.
Yet widespread unionization would do little to improve
employer-employee cooperation. The collective bargaining framework
pits employers and employees against each other. Sometimes it leads
to greater cooperation, but other times it creates conflict and
The transit-worker strike that paralyzed New York City during
Christmas 2005 and the frequent walkouts staged by Detroit public
school teachers -- both illegal -- demonstrate this. Even unions
representing extremely well paid government workers fight
continuously for even more. The FAA Controllers union, for example,
is bitterly protesting a contract that does not give its members
the $200,000 a year they wanted.
Sometimes collective bargaining improves management-labor
relations. Sometimes it does the opposite. That's why states and
local governments ought to have the freedom to determine which case
applies to them. Yet the Public Safety Employer-Employee
Cooperation Act would impose a top-down, one-size-fits-all policy
everywhere. States would have to collectively bargain with public
safety workers, regardless of whether collective or individual
negotiations would actually create more cooperation in the
The act also would affect states and localities that currently
bargain collectively with policemen and firefighters, but not over
everything. Under the act, states and local governments would have
to bargain collectively over not just wages and hours, but also
other "terms and conditions of employment."
Many union-friendly states keep some subjects off the bargaining
table for a good reason. Union interests do not always align with
the public good, so unions are told some subjects are off
Michigan law, for example, specifies that police officers may be
promoted only the basis of merit. Wisconsin extends this
restriction to most state employees. Unions strongly support
seniority systems and insist on them in negotiations, but police
officers and other public safety employees ought to earn their
raises. This keeps everyone working harder to protect the public,
and ensures the best officers will fill the most sensitive
positions. As a result, many states and local governments tell
government unions that, in the interest of public safety, the merit
promotion system is not up for negotiation.
The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act forces
states to put almost everything on the bargaining table. States
would have only the option of ruling the size of pension benefits
and right-to-work provisions out of bounds. Everything else would
be up for grabs. This would not increase workplace harmony, but it
would mean that many states would soon find their public safety
employees saddled with union seniority systems.
Washington doesn't know what should and shouldn't be negotiated
by each state and locality, or what best suits local needs.
Congress certainly should not decide that local governments must
Ironically, Congress gives itself the same flexibility that this
act would deny states and local governments. Recognizing that
unions are sometimes not in the public interest, Congress prevents
many federal public safety employees from unionizing. Employees at
the CIA, the FBI, and the Secret Service may not, by federal law,
In some states and for some local governments collective
bargaining makes sense. In others collective bargaining just
creates more tension and does nothing to improve public safety or
cooperation. Congress should let voters in individual communities
make the choice about what works best for them.
is Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data
Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.