Public sector unions have been on the front pages a lot for the past few years, and the majority of the coverage appears to be negative. What is commonly lost in all the mudslinging and criticism by the anti-union forces is the many important benefits that public sector unions provide to public workers, the political debate, and society as a whole.
For those of you who do not know me, I am an objective budget researcher and labor policy analyst who has been at public sector bargaining tables for dozens of major sets of negotiations over the previous decade.
One colleague of mine and knowledgeable observer of politics, states that the under appreciation of the public sector worker is one of the biggest barriers to government sustainability in our time. Furthermore, society should look public spending and the training of our public sector workforce as an investment, not as a burden.
Perhaps the most unfair consequence of all the anti-unionism is the common mistreatment and scapegoating of the innocent, hardworking public sector worker.
After all, all of society, to one degree or another, depends on the dedication and hard work of our public workforce including nurses, firefighters, police officers, teachers, and general government employees.
My own experience is that public sector workers are good, honest, hardworking people who have a true commitment to public service and the taxpayers they represent.
Unfortunately, public sector workers commonly get vilified in the political process and media for the political actions of public employee unions and represent the collateral damage of the current political environment, of which most public workers have little or no influence over.
Daniel DiSalvo, in his recent book Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences (see book below), has written an authoritative account of the criticisms of public sector unions and probably represents the best summary of criticisms of public sector unions to date.
DiSalvo is an assistant professor of Political Science at the City College of New York-CUNY and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership.
DiSalvo said he wrote the book in part to outline his views to much of his family and friends who are union workers and come from a long line of unions workers. DiSalvo’s overall account of public sector unions is decidedly negative but he does acknowledge a number of valuable benefits that public sector unions provide to workers, the political debate and society as a whole, albeit the extent to which he agrees with each argument, if at all, is unclear in most cases.
DiSalvo dismisses most of these pro-union arguments, some a bit too quickly. My experience is that many of these arguments are significantly more valid that DiSalvo would like to acknowledge and go a long way toward explaining why public sector unions are such an enduring part of American culture, democracy and the political environment.
I believe it would make sense for anyone interested in the public union debate on both sides of the political aisle to read DiSalvo’s book, although it would likely be a pretty tough read for staunch labor union advocates.
Here is a summary with excerpts of DiSalvo’s arguments in favor of public sector unions (#1-7), some additional arguments that I believe he left out (#8-11), and a few of my comments on each argument:
#1 Public Employee Unions Help Achieve “Labor Peace” and Make Their Employers More Efficient Organizations: Public sector unions and their members know as much, if not more, about the operation of public sector agencies than most elected officials and public managers. It has been my experience that many major labor issues would go unnoticed and unresolved if it was not for union members and unions who raise the issues and force the public agencies to address them in collective bargaining or in other proceedings.
#2 Unionization Provides a Vehicle for “Industrial Democracy,” Meaning the Active Participation of Workers in the Governance of Their Workplace: As one observer Walter Lippman once put it, “Without unions industrial democracy is unthinkable.” The participation of public sector unions and members in the collective process serves to bring a form of democracy to the operation and governance of public sector agencies.
#3 Unions Provide Public Employees with Representation in the Political Arena, Enhancing Workers’ “Voice” in the Broader Democratic Process: Furthermore, public sector unions provide a counterbalance to other monied interests on the right. “Without public sector unions, Republicans and big business would run roughshod over the nation,” states DiSalvo. In my opinion, this is perhaps the most significant and important contribution that public sector unions provide to the political process—some semblance of political balance. Without unions, there would be no organization with significant money and power to stand up for the rights of both public and private sector workers.
#4 Unionization Reduces the Power Inequalities Between Employer and Worker: Collective bargaining serves to even out the pay inequalities and provides the negotiation of work rules that even the playing field between management and workers. In my experience, this is definitely the case. The tendency of many public managers and administrators is to increase their salaries, benefits, and powers and leave the average worker behind. Public sector unions provide a valuable check on the inequalities and unfair practices in the workplace between public managers and line workers or the average worker.
#5 Unionization Improves Government Workers’ Lives by Increasing Their Salaries and Benefits: I don’t think anybody familiar with the operation of public sector unions would dispute this fact. Critics say unions go too far in increasing the salaries of public sector workers.
#6 Collective Bargaining is a Fundamental Social and Economic “Right” of All Workers: Similar to rights to education, clean air and clean water, many union workers and unions argue that collective bargaining is a fundamental right for public sector employees.
#7 Government Union Power Provides a Bulwark Against the Tendency of Politicians to Underinvest in Public Goods: DiSalvo states “insofar as government unions perform this function, they help prevent a ”race to the bottom,” whereby states in America’s federal system would compete to cut labor costs and services to make themselves more attractive to business investment." It is likely that in the absence of public sector unions it would be easier to decimate the government workforce to dramatically reduce costs, which could serve to provide lower tax haven states that could potentially attract more business on the basis of lower taxes and therefore a cost of doing business. Most states have civil service rules that would prevent the widespread firing of public sector workers, but these would likely be in danger of being gutted if public sector unions were not part of the debate.
In addition to DiSalvo’s seven benefits of public sector unions, I would add a few more arguments in favor of public sector unions:
#8 Public Sector Unions and the Workers They Represent Are the Backbone of State and Local Government: Not all states have public sector unions, and many have weaker unions, but in the states and localities where public sector unions are prevalent, public sector unions are the one constant force. Politicians come and go, and so do public managers, but public employee unions and their members are permanent fixtures in government. Many of their members have been active for more than 20 years and they provide a form of unparalleled institutional memory that is commonly forgotten by public managers, and not known to many elected officials. Public sector workers are the backbone of our public agencies for general government operations, and perhaps more importantly public safety.
#9 Public Sector Unions Provide an Important Check on the Operation of Government: Without public sector unions, public managers could mistreat public workers and not follow important rules and guidelines and there would likely be nobody there to call them on it. I have seen public sector unions, on countless occasions, point to illegal or unethical actions on the part of public agencies and public managers, both intentional and unintentional. Moreover, most of these workplace issues would not have been raised or addressed in the absence of public sector unions and their members.
#10 Public Sector Unions Provide a Productive Outlet for Public Workers to Voice Their Frustrations About Employer Practices and Government Operations: Without public sector unions, public employees would have nowhere to turn to voice their frustrations regarding employer practices, and could even be retaliated against or fired for voicing such frustrations in the workplace (sometimes they still are).
#11 Public Sector Unions Provide Stability and a Check on Political Whims and an Unstable Political Environment: Even before public sector unions came to be, civil service rules were implemented to make it harder to fire public sector workers and combat political patronage. Prior to civil service rules, political patronage and cronyism ran rapid, as politicians commonly hired public employees based on their political connections and not their ability to do the job or any commitment to the public agency. In the absence of public sector unions, it is likely that when anti-government groups of politicians were swept into office, there would be mass layoffs of public sector workers, and even selective firing of workers based on political beliefs. This would be bad for government institutions over the long term.
I am sure there are more beneficial arguments in favor of public sector workers, but the above is intended to just be a brief synopsis, not an exhaustive debate.
DiSalvo concludes that (for his #1-7 arguments) “each of these arguments has its merits and a powerful appeal because they invoke participation, representation, rights, and democracy—some of the deepest values of modern American society. At the end of the day, readers will have to judge for themselves whether the claims on behalf of government unionization stand up to scrutiny and are sufficiently powerful to outweigh the costs imposed on the public.”
David Kersten is an independent expert in public sector labor policy and bargaining and has been closely involved in dozens of major labor negotiations over the past decade.