CLOSUP report: majority of Michigan's local leaders say employee unions hurt fiscal health of their localities

August 29, 2011

More than half of the local government leaders surveyed in Michigan jurisdictions that have public employee unions say those unions have had a negative impact on their jurisdictions' fiscal health, a University of Michigan survey reports.

Despite the negative view, 60 percent of the local officials say the relationship between their localities and employee unions has been either good or excellent over the past 12 months, according to the statewide poll. Only 5 percent say the relationship was poor.

Public employee unions have been a hot topic of debate this year nationwide, and the U-M survey provides a better understanding of the presence and impact of the unions across Michigan.

Bitter political feuds have erupted in other states over moves to curb employee benefits and, in some cases, union bargaining rights. Although Gov. Rick Snyder has taken a far less confrontational approach in Michigan, his efforts to reform public sector employment have helped focus debate on union-related issues.

Surprisingly, only 27 percent of Michigan's local governments statewide have unions, according to the poll, part of the ongoing Michigan Public Policy Survey by U-M's Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

However, most Michigan residents live within localities that have unions because the vast majority (98 percent) of the largest jurisdictions —- which have the bulk of the state's residents -- have unions. Southeast Michigan stands out, with 56 percent of the region's localities reporting one or more unions -—twice as high a percentage as in any other region.

Other findings:

- In jurisdictions with unions, 56 percent of local government leaders believe the unions have been a liability to their jurisdictions' fiscal health, while 13 percent say they have been an asset and 29 percent say neither an asset nor a liability.

- 58 percent of these local officials say the unions have had either a neutral (44 percent) or positive (14 percent) impact on their governments' operations.

- Compared to Republican and Independent local leaders, Democratic officials are somewhat more positive about the fiscal impact of employee unions. But a surprisingly high 48 percent of the Democrats say unions have been a liability to their jurisdictions' fiscal health.

The poll, conducted from April 18 to June 10, involved online and hardcopy surveys sent to the top elected and appointed officials in all the counties, cities, villages, and townships in Michigan.

Respondents included county administrators and board chairs, city mayors and administrators, township supervisors, clerks and managers, and village presidents and managers.

A total of 1,272 jurisdictions returned valid surveys, resulting in a 69 percent response rate. The margin of error was plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.

The report is available online at Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy.