The Michigan Civil Service Commission voted 3-1 in favor of the limits proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder's administration, which said allowing negotiations on some contract topics had hampered agencies' ability to operate efficiently and cost-effectively.
His three appointees — two Republicans and an independent who once was the acting state personnel director — backed the proposal. A Democrat appointed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm voted against it.
Hundreds of workers protested outside and crowded the meeting room, applauding loudly when their union leaders testified in opposition to the rule changes. Democratic lawmakers also spoke out, while conservative groups urged adoption of the rules.
"Seniority is used in union contracts to promote fairness and efficiency. It is used as a way of avoiding individualized determinations that may say that they're based on performance but may be based on other issues such as the kinds of nepotism, cronyism and political considerations that the Civil Service Commission was designed to protect against," said Ava Rose Barbour, associate general counsel for the United Auto Workers, which represents 22,000 state workers.
Republican Commissioner Jim Barrett, the former president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said seniority hours have become "a proxy for fitness and efficiency when that number is unrelated to actual merit." The other GOP commissioner, ex-House Speaker Jase Bolger, said the unwieldy process in which senior workers receiving layoff notices bump out less senior employees can require "several hundred hours of staff time just to figure out what will happen during one layoff." He criticized the "disparate treatment."
But Peter Clark, labor relations manager for the 4,500-member Michigan State Employees Association, countered: "You don't get 20 years of seniority unless you have been a good employee."
Most of the new rules will take effect in 2019 after existing labor contracts expire. They empower state management to treat unionized workers similarly to the state's roughly 15,000 nonunionized workers in areas such as employment preference, transfers, recalls and assignments for shifts and overtime. The rules also let the state dictate the process for deducting union dues or fees from paychecks and limit state-paid leave time for employees to work on union-related matters such as employee grievances, which labor officials said keep costly lawsuits in check.
Another change reinstitutes the commission's power to unilaterally impose compensation changes if the governor declares a budgetary emergency.
Byron Osborn, a 45-year-old officer at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula, was among a large crowd of employees rallying before the meeting. He said the changed rules will "silence worker voices," and he was especially concerned with their effect on guards who staff prisons and must work overtime due to unfilled positions.
"We've bargained this system for seniority and overtime distribution," Osborn said. "We question their motive for wanting to take away our rights to bargain that. It just feels like a political move to silence labor organizations."
In 2012, Michigan enacted right-to-work laws making union fees voluntary. State employees also have criticized the privatization of some state government functions under Snyder's watch.