Michigan Declares ‘Financial Martial Law’: Democracy Endangered?

Michigan has just joined Ohio and Wisconsin in passing a law that seeks to limit the power of unions. This one arguably goes further than the now-infamous limitation on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin: it bestows state-appointed financial managers the right to terminate union contracts in cases where cities and school districts have unbalanced budgets. Or as the bill’s supporters say, cases where “financial martial law” is necessary. After the bill was proposed, protests erupted around Michigan. After it was passed, they intensified — so far, 11 have been arrested at Michigan’s capital building in Lansing.

The idea behind the bill is that it allows these financial managers to swiftly and decisively balance budgets in cities and school districts on the verge of financial collapse. But it also appears to circumvent the democratic process by giving authority to arbiters hired by the state to overturn contracts that have been negotiated in good faith for years. In that sense, it seems a uniquely authoritarian law.

Here’s a closer look at some of the logic from the supporters of the bill, via Politico:

Supporters say the bill gives the state a way to step into distressed municipalities and schools before they collapse. It also gives emergency financial managers broad authority to end employee union contracts, and to nullify elected boards and councils. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Al Pscholka, said Tuesday that it would give the state the power it needs to dig important institutions out of financial holes. “For years we have allowed cities and schools to be on the verge of bankruptcy without any intervention,” he told Reuters.

But the teachers, firefighters, autoworkers, health service workers, and the other labor groups that comprise the backbone of Michigan’s workforce don’t see it that way. Dianne Feeley, a retired auto worker who joined the protests in Lansing, wrote the following in an op-ed on Truthout:

On March 8 a thousand Michiganders—including firefighters, teachers, office workers, health care workers, auto workers and steelworkers—rallied at the state Capitol in Lansing, filling all three floors of the rotunda and demanding “kill the bill.” We were opposing legislation that would give astounding unchecked power to emergency managers appointed by the governor when he or she decides local municipalities or school districts are in financial trouble. These powers include firing elected officials, tearing up union contracts, outsourcing, slashing services, and selling off public assets without competitive bidding.

Whether or not this measure furthers the aim of balancing budgets, to me, there’s no getting around the fact that it would do so in a pretty bluntly anti-democratic manner. It eliminates a whole group of people’s rights to negotiate for their standard of living, and shifts the decision-making power on such matters over to the state — and it leaves the middle class with no immediate recourse. The state’s agents can now go through cities on a case-by-case budget, and tear up union contracts if it they deem them too cumbersome. This sets a dangerous, undemocratic precedent in yielding power to the state and siphoning it from locally elected bodies, and the working class in general. Why should one particular team of financial consultants get to determine the fate of entire groups of people’s standard of living?

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About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to GOOD.is, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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