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A Modest Proposal for Public Sector Union Opponents

Jon Shelton

Want to reduce the relative power of public sector unions in America? Make it easier for private sector workers to form unions.

Those in and around the labor movement in the U.S. ought to pay considerable attention to a new book out this January, Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences (Oxford University Press). Written by Daniel DiSalvo, a rising star political science professor at City College of New York who opposes paying agency fees to his own union (in New York, public sector labor contracts typically include fair share arrangements, which require all employees covered by a collectively bargained contract to contribute to representation costs) the book argues that public sector unions should not be able to engage in collective bargaining. 

Now, it’s easy enough to find arguments against public sector unionization these days — look at the newsletter of single-issue political advocacy groups like the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), who were responsible for challenging agency fees for home care workers in Illinois in last summer’s Harris v. Quinn Supreme Court case; or the recent handiwork of Republican administrations in states like Wisconsin; or, for cruder examples, the open comments section of virtually any newspaper article on public employees. 

But Government against Itself is notable because it is more than a polemic. DiSalvo is a legitimate scholar, and, though it may be surprising to hear me, a labor historian, say this, he correctly argues that the relatively better position of unionized public sector workers has become a serious problem in American politics. 

We disagree, however, on how to correct that relative privilege”: he would like to diminish the rights of public sector workers, whereas I would like to extend the reach of the wages, benefits and working conditions that some unionized public employees enjoy in the U.S.

DiSalvo’s argument is that in contrast to rhetoric about promoting the public good through unionization, public employee unions are merely self-serving. He concludes that out of the traditional arguments for public sector bargaining rights, only two — the potential for greater labor peace in the public sector and the fact that public sector unions push the state to spend more on valuable public services — are actually good for the public. 

He then dispatches these two by arguing that before the establishment of public sector labor law — which, in many states in the postwar era, began to allow public employees the right to join unions without fear of retribution and collectively bargain over wages and some working conditions — there was little labor unrest. Further, he argues that the additional money unions fight for the state to spend on public services is essentially wasted on higher salaries and excessive benefits for public sector workers without much additional productivity.

DiSalvo does not dispute that public sector unions benefit their members in a number of important ways — which is refreshing, given a half-century of conservative efforts to argue that unions are actually bad for workers. He admits that they give public workers a greater political voice, more freedom from employer control, more job security and, for most, better wages and benefits. 

This runs contrary to the logic of many groups like the NRTWC (or even the Supreme Court, as can be seen in Justice Samuel Alito’s decision in Harris v. Quinn) that ridiculously argue that labor bosses” who get workers higher wages and better working conditions somehow represent corrupt tyrants. If more free-market conservatives shared DiSalvo’s perspective on these issues, there might very well be more room for productive conversations about public sector unionism these days.

The main problem with public sector unions is that they represent an interest group like any other, DiSalvo says, but because they enjoy structural advantages (like agency fees in a dwindling number of states) and because they get two bites at the apple” — meaning that they get to push for higher wages through both legislative lobbying and through collective bargaining — they end up wielding excessive power. 

This power, in turn, he believes, constrains what the state can do, particularly for the benefit of working people in the private sector who do not have the stability of public sector work, not to mention pensions and healthcare benefits. Those of us on the Left should be particularly interested in this problem, DiSalvo argues: For liberals who want government to do more to create more equal opportunities, protect citizens from market failures, and lift up the poor, having to defend the costs and inefficiencies imposed by public sector unions is a major drag.”

The Development of Public Sector Unions

DiSalvo’s series of thematic chapters begins with a brief historical overview of the growth of public sector bargaining rights. If there is one major disagreement I have with the way DiSalvo wears his historian hat, it is that his rather wonky discussion of the development of public sector labor law focuses excessively on the actions of politicians — while neglecting the story of how organized public employees themselves pushed those politicians to enact labor rights for government workers.

Building on work mostly by other political scientists, DiSalvo chalks up the institution of collective bargaining in the public sector to civil service laws in the first half of the 20th century, the postwar growth of the role of the state and Democrats’ subsequent desire to use a growing number of public employees as campaign foot-soldiers. 

There is nothing inaccurate about this explanation, but the story is not complete. Indeed, DiSalvo ignores the decades of work, particularly in his adopted city, by rank-and-file activists. Robust teacher organizing in New York City goes back to the early 20th century, for example, and the United Federation of Teachers (the New York local formed from the merger of several unions in the city in 1960) was only able to get the city to bargain with them after an aptly-timed (and illegal) strike of over 6,000 teachers in November 1960. Incidentally, had he paid more attention to this history — in addition to the major strike waves in 1919 and 1946-47 that prominently featured public employees — DiSalvo may very well have seen that labor relations in the public sector were not all that peaceful in the pre-collective bargaining days.

Further chapters on union influence in politics argue that public sector union involvement in elections and lobbying legislators have distorted the political process. (Corporations, on the other hand, who influence elections, lobby legislators, and in some cases even write the very legislation they want, somehow aren’t guilty of having multiple bites at the apple”). More intriguingly, DiSalvo asserts that unions have been able to stifle what he calls innovation” (or what I would call market reforms that benefit the rich”) by blocking popular referenda.

Using California as a case study, he shows that unions were able to block ballot initiatives 75% of the time in the last 30 years. Here, he focuses mainly on the ability of the California Teacher Association to block initiatives on such measures as school vouchers, teacher tenure and more flexible requirements on education spending. 

As a union member and supporter of the labor movement, I want to believe that unions have such power, but, like most of those on the Right, DiSalvo ignores the fact that unions’ legislative priorities (in this case, ballot referenda) are probably measures that much of the public already supports.

Making a forceful case for this argument is tough without diving deeply into public opinion polling over the 30 year period that DiSalvo studies, but a quick glance at Gallup polls from the past decade—and, remember, this is in the post-No Child Left Behind period in which the nation has been repeatedly reminded about how our schools are failing” — shows that when Americans are polled about what should be done to improve schools, they mostly advocate better teachers, better pay for teachers, better curriculum, more school funding, and smaller classrooms. Getting rid of teacher unions and school vouchers polled between 1-3% each for most of that period.

The Weight of Public Worker Benefits

The most interesting chapters from my perspective, however, are the two that show how public workers’ pensions and healthcare — relative to those of private sector workers — now constrain what the state can do. DiSalvo accurately asserts that politicians (in this case both Democrats and Republicans) are guilty of building unsustainable funding structures by mollifying powerful unions with the promises of paying out long-term benefits — while also avoiding funding them in order to placate taxpayer calls not to increase revenues.

It is indisputable that pension obligations and retiree healthcare, combined with austerity policies and a system of political economy that punishes union rights by incentivizing corporations that move to right-to-work states, does force state and local governments into making difficult choices about what they will spend money on. The tragic history of Detroit — in which city services have been cut and pension benefits were ultimately downsized anyway after auto companies re-located production to the Sunbelt and then abroad — is the best example of this phenomenon. 

The problem here, however, isn’t the promise of pensions itself, but the fact that 40 years of stagnating wages for most Americans have made it difficult for the state to meet its obligations, as its hard-hit middle-class taxpayers have fought tax hikes in an attempt to hold on to as much income as possible. 

As a recent piece in the New York Times pointed out in the wake of President Obama’s call for middle-class economics,” the economic center has been shrinking since the 1970s. Indeed, wealth and income inequality have been on a virtually unmitigated rise since then, and it isn’t just because the fruits of the economy have been going disproportionately to the rich—it’s because almost all of the economy’s growth has gone to the rich.

Beyond Partisan Disputes”

Ultimately, however, what makes DiSalvo’s book of such interest to progressives are the assumptions about his own general political perspective of being neither left nor right. Looking beyond partisan disputes,” he argues (and I believe he is genuine in saying this), this book offers a centrist’s case for skepticism about the benefits of public employee unionization and a way to think about the future of unionism in government.” In fact, he points out in the introduction that he hopes more liberals than conservatives” read his book.

In a day and age when everyone seems to be yelling past each other, DiSalvo’s measured and intelligent perspective should be lauded. But I am left with the conclusion that what DiSalvo’s moderate stance does so well is to highlight the very playbook that has allowed Republicans and neoliberal Democrats to move us toward the austere and unequal state of American political economy. 

Sadly, his basic position is centrist — but this just shows how far to the right conservatives have gone over the past generation. 

As new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows us, the proportion of workers belonging to unions continues to shrink as total union membership in the U.S. is now just above 11%. For private sector workers who have seen the power of the unions that used to protect them badly eroded, who have poor healthcare plans with high premiums and deductibles and little or no savings for retirement, it is certainly easy for those who want to see all unions destroyed to use this fact as a wedge to foment resentment against public workers who, for the time being, still expect such things.

He is also correct that unsustainable pensions and unequal healthcare structures do limit what the state can do, particularly given the reality that those who benefit the most from our society — the wealthy — manage to avoid contributing to it, often paying effective tax rates that are lower than middle-class Americans. 

The major fallacy in DiSalvo’s argument regarding the constraints on the state, however, is that given conservative control of Congress and the fact that 31 states are controlled by Republican governors (and 23 of those by Republican legislatures, too — only seven states currently have a Democratic governor and legislature), it is not likely that much of the money that would be saved by cutting public employees’ salaries, pensions and healthcare benefits will go back into social welfare programs to rebuild a middle-class tax base. Instead, they will simply represent more tax expenditures on the wealthy.

Public Sector Unions: All That’s Left

With this in mind, it is important to point out that for all of DiSalvo’s measured assessment of public sector unions, he overlooks one broad public benefit: They represent the major place of strength left for labor unions in the U.S. Private sector unionization in the U.S. has dropped below seven percent, and it is only in the public sector in states like DiSalvo’s New York that a union can actually undertake major initiatives both on behalf of their members and the larger society. 

Labor unions are the only powerful organization that can speak out for all workers, and if there is a limitation of public sector unions’ ability to do this, it is that the system of U.S. and state labor law forces them at times to advocate excessively on behalf of their constituencies at the expense of all working people in the U.S.

As DiSalvo himself recently pointed out in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, unions serve an important role in counteracting the excessive power of corporations. Given the demise of private sector unions, it is important that unions like the one to which DiSalvo pays representation fees (the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, an American Federation of Teachers [AFT] affiliate) do even more to speak up for higher wages for all working people.

And it is implausible that public sector unions enjoy excessive power in the U.S., if for no reason than the example of states like Wisconsin, where labor was unable to stop the devastating policies of Gov. Scott Walker or defeat him in two subsequent elections. Further, in the post-Citizens United world, it is ridiculous to think that unions could come anywhere close to combating the influence of individual wealthy donors on the electoral process (the Koch brothers’ budget for 2016 is reportedly just under $1 billion).

A Modest Proposal

But let’s accept his premise here for just a second. Instead of asking how we can limit the supposed excessive power of public sector unions, let’s ask instead how we can really make American workers in the private sector more powerful and less insecure. 

Based on the thoughtfulness of his work, I believe that DiSalvo wants to do what is best for America. And what he thinks is best is to make life better for working Americans — especially those in the private sector that do, all things being equal, have less job security and fewer protections than those in the public sector who are more likely to belong to a union.

One way to do this is pass meaningful labor law reform — reform that will actually punish employers like Walmart (which has allegedly exacted reprisals against those who have participated in the yearly Black Friday walkouts) for intimidating workers from joining unions. This far-reaching kind of legal reform hasn’t been a real possibility since the late 1970s, when a major overhaul of the National Labor Relations Act that would have offered real punishments for the behavior of companies like Walmart fell two votes short of breaking a Senate filibuster.

With this in mind, if he really wants to make life better for working people, then perhaps DiSalvo should lobby members of Congress to pass a recent proposal by Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) and others to make the right to organize a civil right, allowing workers to sue offending companies for damages that would actually hurt their bottom line.

But if one were ideologically opposed to unions (or at least public sector unions, as DiSalvo is), one could also lessen the lure of unions by legislating a guaranteed living wage for all workers in the U.S. that makes public employment less comparatively attractive, a single-payer universal healthcare system and a state-sponsored retirement system that working people can actually live on when they retire.

Of course, doing these things will require a dramatic increase in taxes on the wealthy. As DiSalvo admits very early on in the book, wealth inequality — like the power of corporations that unions in the private sector have traditionally worked to counterbalance — is a dreadfully serious problem facing the U.S. economy.

Here’s the problem, though: Advances by workers have never been possible without a strong union movement.

The law giving workers the right to organize in the private sector — the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 — would not have been possible without millions of workers organizing and going on strike and convincing Congress and President Roosevelt of the necessity of acting. Teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters, postal workers, and police officers (most of whom came from lower-class families and were pulled into the middle-class through collectively bargained wage increases, benefits and pensions) would never have made those gains without organizing. 

So, as a union member not allowed to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining in Wisconsin, I’d like to put forward a humble proposal to my colleague forced to enjoy the benefits of a union in New York. Daniel DiSalvo: mobilize other conservatives who want to reduce the excessive power” of public sector unions to make the lives of all working people in the U.S. more secure by guaranteeing every American a job with a living wage, high quality universal healthcare and retirement benefits that will never be rescinded.

Maybe it is possible to create a world in which unions really are not necessary; if we can accomplish this, I’ll pay your agency fees for you. 

I hate to be pessimistic, but I have doubts that DiSalvo and other conservatives are going to want to work with me on this endeavor. And so I suppose public employees across the U.S. will have to redouble our efforts to develop that kind of social movement unionism that can speak on behalf of all working people in the U.S.

Jon Shelton is an assistant professor in the Department of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He has written for Dissent and Truthout, and is at work on a book on the relationship between urban teacher strikes, labor politics and American culture entitled Against the Public’: Teacher Strikes and the Decline of Labor-Liberalism, 1968-1981.
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