The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act (H.R. 980)
would force all state and local governments to collectively bargain
with police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical
personnel. Although this bill gives the appearance of respecting
local control and flexibility, it actually severely restricts the
freedom of state and local governments to tailor their policies to
their needs. H.R. 980 would force states to negotiate subjects such
as replacing a merit-based pay system with seniority-based
promotions, which many local governments have found to be
inappropriate in their jurisdictions. Congress should not force
states and localities to recognize public sector unions as their
employees' exclusive representatives.
Mandatory Exclusive Representation
H.R. 980 has nothing to do with employer-employee cooperation.
Instead, the legislation requires state and local governments to
recognize public sector unions as their public safety employees'
(policemen, firemen, and emergency medical personnel) exclusive
representatives. The act would force the minority of state and
local governments that do not collectively bargain with their
public safety employees to do so. It would also force the states
and localities that do collectively bargain with their public
safety employees to bargain according to the broad terms of the
The act appears to respect the principles of local control by
leaving state and local laws that already provide for collective
bargaining intact. In fact, this appearance is largely illusory.
State and local governments would have only the authority to pass
laws more expansive than those the federal government imposed; they
would not have the authority to pass laws less sweeping than the
Ending Local Control and Flexibility
H.R. 980 would end local control and flexibility. One of the great
advantages of the federalist system of government is that it does
not impose one-size-fits-all solutions. Different states and local
governments have different needs and should be free to fit their
policies to their individual needs. What works well in Los Angeles,
California, may create headaches in Arlington, Virginia.
Whether a state should recognize a union as an exclusive
representative, or should let individual workers negotiate the
terms of their own contracts, is just such an issue. In some
states, collective bargaining works well and promotes local
flexibility. In other jurisdictions, it causes more problems than
it solves. The frequent strikes by public school teachers in
Detroit and the strike by transit workers that paralyzed New York
City demonstrate that collective bargaining does not always work.
States and local governments should have the freedom and the
flexibility to experiment with different policies and adopt the one
that works best. Washington should not impose monopoly union
bargaining on every state and local government in the country.
Not All Issues Should Be Negotiated
Even where public sector collective bargaining makes sense, the
public good demands that many terms and conditions of employment be
kept off the bargaining table. Many states follow this practice and
restrict the subjects of negotiation.
Merit-based promotions and raises encourage hard work and help
put the best workers in the most sensitive positions. Public sector
unions, however, strongly support seniority-based promotions and
raises, and insist on them in negotiations. But even union-friendly
states like Michigan and Wisconsin have passed laws specifying that
police officers and state troopers earn promotions solely on the
basis of merit and preventing unions from negotiating a seniority
system. Illinois prohibits negotiations over when
police officers can use deadly force. Nevada prevents unions from
bargaining over the size of the state workforce. These are sensible
restrictions that prevent unions from negotiating contracts that
benefit their members at the expense of the public good.
H.R. 980 would remove virtually all these restrictions. Under
H.R. 980, state and local governments would be forced to negotiate
almost all "terms and conditions of employment" with public sector
unions. The act takes only state right-to-work laws
and pension benefits off the bargaining table. It forces states to
put virtually everything else up for negotiation, threatening
merit-based pay systems nationwide.
Exclusive Representation Not a Fundamental Right
Supporters of H.R. 980 argue that the importance of
collective bargaining justifies severely restricting state and
local governments' flexibility. According to this view, collective
bargaining is a fundamental right that every state must be forced
This view is mistaken. Freedom of association is a fundamental
right. The ability of workers to freely join-or not join-unions is
protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. No state
prevents its employees from belonging to a union.
However, the right to belong to a union does not imply a right
to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining confers monopoly
bargaining privileges on the union. The union exclusively
represents all employees in contract negotiations-even those not in
the union. This gives the union much more negotiating power, but
harms workers who could negotiate a better individual deal with the
employer. A non-union worker who prefers merit-based promotions
must instead accept what the union negotiates for him.
Although there are some cases where collective bargaining makes
sense and simplifies negotiations for all involved, this does not
mean that unions have a fundamental right to exclusively represent
all employees in contract negotiations, whether they want it or
Congress should not force every state and local government in
America to adopt collective bargaining. Monopoly bargaining is not
appropriate in every state, and Congress should not take away
states' freedom to fit their laws to their individual needs. This
policy would force states to negotiate conditions of
employment-such as seniority systems instead of merit
promotions-which are best left off the bargaining table. Congress
should respect the ability of states and local governments to
govern themselves and decide what best fit their needs.
James Sherk is
Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data Analysis at
The Heritage Foundation.
H.R. 980, Kildee Substitute Amendment, Section 4(b)(3). The act
includes an exception for localities smaller than 5,000 people or
with fewer than 25 full-time employees.