What Are the Public Sector Unions to Do?

Stephen Franklin

In South Dako­ta, where union mem­bers in the pri­vate work­force are near­ly a mirage, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers are think­ing of bring­ing the same fate down upon gov­ern­ment workers.

They are mulling a law that would bar local gov­ern­ments from nego­ti­at­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments with unions, accord­ing to news reports.

So what’s the sur­prise, you say? Con­sid­er­ing the gains the Repub­li­cans have reaped in state hous­es and in Wash­ing­ton, such strate­gies are not sur­pris­ing at all.

All true, but this is no time for orga­nized labor to turn up its col­lar and try to wait out the cold. There are oth­er doings on the hori­zon that should make the nation’s pub­lic sec­tor unions pray for a pow­er­ful cam­paign to lead it out of the mess.

As finan­cial­ly strapped states begin trim­ming away, expect to see more than minor cut­backs for state work­ers in Repub­li­can-led states. More seri­ous­ly, some might copy the route tak­en sev­er­al years ago by Gov. Mitch Daniels in Indi­ana, which dropped its bar­gain­ing with state employ­ee unions.

Nowa­days Daniels and Indiana’s Repub­li­cans, who have nailed down con­trol over the state’s leg­is­la­ture, are talk­ing about ways to place severe restraints on local­ly nego­ti­at­ed con­tracts with teacher unions.

New York is not South Dako­ta nor a Mid­west state where once pow­er­ful unions can be shoved aside, but even new­ly elect­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo appears head­ed for a col­li­sion with the state’s pub­lic employ­ee unions.

The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion is high­ly unlike­ly to echo the com­plaints raised by some politi­cians that pub­lic work­ers are over­paid, under­worked and ben­e­fi­cia­ries of far too friend­ly con­tract negotiations.

But in its quest to pinch dol­lars, the admin­is­tra­tion will like­ly speed up the steady decline in the fed­er­al work­force, and as a result, the ranks of the fed­er­al work­er unions. About 1.1 mil­lion fed­er­al employ­ees were rep­re­sent­ed by a union in 2010, a near­ly 2 per­cent decline in one year, accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post.

This wear­ing away at pub­lic ser­vice work­ers and unions that rep­re­sent them should set off alarms for orga­nized labor, because this has been the one area where U.S. unions had been able to hold their own.

The rea­son that only 6.9 per­cent of the pri­vate work­force today belongs to a union while 36.2 per­cent holds a pub­lic sec­tor job is very sim­ply that gov­ern­ment offi­cials in those places friend­ly to unions sim­ply didn’t attack the unions the way busi­ness­es tra­di­tion­al­ly have.

But that was yes­ter­day. Today, you bet­ter watch your back if your check has a pub­lic seal on it.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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