By Kristen M. Daum
An exemption within Michigan Republicans’ right-to-work plans is stirring up more divisiveness because police officers and firefighters would be excluded from such a law on public employees.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said Thursday the exemption is meant to respect the “unique circumstance” police officers and firefighters are in because of the “dangerous nature of their work.”
But critics say the exception will create class warfare among public employees and it leaves out other dangerous occupations, particularly corrections officers in the state’s prison system.
“I’m happy for police and fire, but I’m a little frustrated because state corrections officers risk their life and limb every single day as well,” said Mel Grieshaber, executive director for the Michigan Corrections Organization, which represents more than 7,000 corrections officers statewide.
“This is a public indication by our lawmakers that these officers are not appreciated for the work they do,” Grieshaber said.
Republican legislators said the exemption echoes a 43-year-old state law that already puts police officers and firefighters in a different category when it comes to labor disputes.
Public Act 312 states police officers, firefighters, emergency medical service personnel and 911 operators cannot strike and must, instead, go through binding arbitration to resolve labor disagreements.
“Public safety has always been viewed as an exemption on numerous issues such as this,” said outgoing Rep. Paul Opsommer, R-DeWitt, who is the primary sponsor of the original bill that’s being used as the vehicle to push through right-to-work legislation for public workers.
Opsommer said corrections officers “are seen in a different light from police and fire.”
Grieshaber said Republicans’ explanations for the exemption are “very wishy-washy.”
“Nobody disagrees that corrections officers work in a 100-percent hostile environment. Police go into dangerous situations, too, but 90 percent of their day is spent with law-abiding citizens,” Grieshaber said.
Representatives for police and fire unions in the Lansing area said the exemption creates an awkward, Catch-22 situation for them: They’re glad to keep their union shops, but they’re reluctant to be treated differently from other union workers in the public sector.
“In union history and tradition, it’s solidarity with each other,” Lansing firefighter Eric Weber said. “The fact we are left out of this legislation is hard to accept, but we’d be fools not to accept it.
“This paints a target on us and we don’t want that,” Weber added. “If it’s good for us, why can’t it be good for all others?”
Tom Krug, executive director for the Fraternal Order of Police Capitol City Lodge No. 141, said Snyder doesn’t have “a valid argument” for right to work regardless of the exemption.
“We’re against the right-to-work law for anybody,” Krug said. “I don’t see how this makes Michigan any stronger.”
Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said the exemption for police officers and firefighters could be a viable means for a court challenge, when and if the legislation is enacted.
“That creates totally separate classes under the law, and I think there’s an equal-protection argument there,” said Whitmer, who is a lawyer.
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