Public-Sector Unions


In an age where only 7.2 percent of private-sector workers in the United States belong to unions, it may come as a surprise that 37.4 percent of all public-sector (i.e. government) workers are unionized.  Put another way, there are more public-sector workers in unions (7.9 million) than in the private-sector (7.4 million), despite the fact that there are five times as many workers in private industry. 1  In historical terms, public-sector workers are more densely unionized today than private-sector workers were at their peak in 1953 (35 percent).2  Ironically, this paradox — of public-sector power and private-sector weakness — represents a major problem as much for public-sector unions themselves as it does for crippled private-sector unions or non-unionized workers.

Though a recent Center for Economic and Policy Research study (reported on in the MRZine) demonstrated that public workers actually pay a wage penalty relative to comparable private-sector workers, public employees are often presumed to be over-paid and under-worked.  Now, in addition, unionized transit workers, teachers, custodians, and postal employees are also being presented by politicians and the corporate media as stubborn drains on state and federal budgets already reeling from the economic crisis.

In New Jersey, for example, newly elected governor Chris Christie (Rep.) is waging a war on the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union representing 178,000 members.3  Christie’s budget, introduced in February, sliced $820 million in state aid to schools (starting in the 2010-11 school year), resulting in layoffs across the state, and in April he called for taxpayers to vote down local school budgets in districts where unions did not accept wage freezes and benefit reductions.  The majority of school districts in the state for the first time since 1976 did not pass their budgets, leaving the future of school programs and union contracts in doubt.4

The resentment of (many working-class) taxpayers to the apparent high wages and job security of these workers is to some extent being fomented and manipulated by Christie’s cohort of anti-tax elites.  For instance, the renewal of a tax on the wealthiest state residents (households making over $400,000) could more than make up for Christie’s education cut.5  Still, the indifference to or embrace of attacks on teachers’ wages, benefits, and pensions should not be dismissed only as the machinations of the elite public relations campaigns or some kind of  “false-consciousness” (in the old language) of duped workers.  Instead, the roots of this situation — where public-sector unions are the targets of worker antipathy — can only be explained by examining the history of public-sector unions, and it must be understood in order to build a strong private and public union movement in the future.

Public-sector unions have humble beginnings to be sure.  While the Wagner Act (1935) confirmed and expanded the right to freely organize for millions of workers, it excluded public workers from its provisions.  As might be expected, the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which eviscerated many gains enshrined in the Wagner Act, like the closed shop, did little to remedy the situation.  In fact, that legislation explicitly forbade public workers from striking and mandated the dismissal of workers who did.  As now, though, much of burden of public labor law fell to the states, for most government workers are employed by municipal, county, or state governments.  From these authorities too, public workers at mid-century gained little, even as their private-sector counterparts made remarkable post-war improvements in union density, wages, and benefits.  New York’s Condon-Wadlin Act (1947), for example, prohibited strikes and did not explicitly affirm the right of public workers to collective bargain.  Throughout the immediate post-war period other states established similar statutes limiting the rights of public employees. 6  Philosophically, the laws of this period held that a government could not operate in the interest of the general public and also allow its workers to undermine the government’s sovereignty by striking or bargaining.

During the 1960s, though, this patchwork of laws restraining public workers from organizing and striking began to unravel.  At the federal level, President Kennedy issued an executive order in January 1962 providing federal government employees the right to join labor organizations and collectively bargain, though it did not recognize their right to strike.  In state legislatures, a sea change was also visible.  In 1959, Wisconsin — the birthplace of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 27 years earlier — passed a law legalizing collective bargaining, but this new legislation also expressly prohibited strikes.  In New York, after strikes by teachers and transit workers revealed the impotence of the repressive 1947 act, lawmakers passed the Taylor Act (1967), which granted collective bargaining rights to public employees, but also included severe penalties for strikes.7  In Pennsylvania, a strike by Pittsburgh teachers ultimately forced the state legislature to legalize public employee collective bargaining, and even granted public employees the right to strike.  Finally, at the federal level, rolling wildcat strikes by postal workers in the spring of 1970 underscored the militancy and determination of the workers in the largest federal agency (excepting the military) for collective bargaining, and better working conditions and wages.8

Though public workers did not succeed during the 1970s to create a national “Wagner Act for public employees,” and in the “sunbelt” of the south and west the development of “right to work laws” hampered organizing, public unions did codify their power in many state laws.  Thus, despite major regional variations, by the 1970s public workers were pulling themselves in line with their private-sector counterparts; in the early 1960s only 13 percent of government employees belonged to unions, but by 1990 over 35 percent did.9

Critically, almost all of this growth in the unionization of public workers coincided with the moment that private-sector unions began hemorrhaging members and average wages across the country stagnated.  In what is now a familiar story, from the 1960s onwards the triple threat of automation and capital mobility (deindustrialization), union conservatism, and the breakdown of the New Deal coalition conspired to wrest power from workers.  By 1987, only 17 percent of Americans belonged to unions while average real wages for all workers peaked long before, in 1973.10  Essentially, governed by separate laws, and subject less immediately to the whims of the market, public workers had “success while others failed,” ironically coming to power as neoliberalism gathered coherence ideologically and force politically.  The current economic crisis and public antipathy reveals, however, that public workers’ power is not immune from the same mix of political conservatism and economic instability that crippled private-sector unions.

Moving forward, the success of public-sector workers, their unions, and the union movement generally depends on the ability of public-sector unions to play a much more aggressive role in organizing non-union workers, and in promoting progressive politics.  In other words they need to demonstrate their relevance in the lives of working-class Americans.  Public unions must subsidize, both financially and with grassroots cooperation, organizing efforts across the country for all types of workers.  In the 1960s, the fledgling public union movement relied on exactly this kind of support from local labor councils, unions, and fellow workers.  It is time to return the favor.  Simultaneously, public-sector unions should be at the forefront of a renewed single payer healthcare movement, even if it means abandoning the support of Democratic legislators usually hungry for public-union endorsements.  One of the stickiest issues in contract negotiations in virtually every round of bargaining for teachers and transit workers across the country over the last few years has been rising healthcare costs (a situation unlikely to be changed by the recent healthcare legislation).  A single payer system would take this contentious issue off of the bargaining table entirely, and also demonstrate to non-unionized workers the dedication of their communities’ educators, bus drivers, and firefighters to the universal right of quality healthcare.

Still, a critical question remains: are public-sector unions ready to be at the “vanguard” (again, in the old language)?  In many states, public unions have become entrenched bureaucracies, while members (especially college educated teachers) may not see themselves as sharing common circumstances with many service workers.  Without reaching out to universalize the gains they have realized, though, public-sector unions will increasingly be viewed apathetically or resentfully by many American workers as an “aristocracy of labor,” while likely staying on the defensive in contract negotiations, and being made easy scapegoats in electoral politicking.

1  Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Member Summary – 2009,” 22 January 2010.

2  Charles Craypo, “The Decline in Union Bargaining Power,” in U.S. Labor Relations, 1945-1989: Accommodation and Conflict, ed. Bruce Nissen (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990), 4.

3  “NJEA Fact Sheet,” New Jersey Education Association.

4  Peter Applebome, “Governor Christie vs. the Teachers: Nastiness in New Jersey,” New York Times, 26 April 2010, A17.

5  At the time of writing, the tax issue is still very much alive in New Jersey.  The tax referred to in the article here is a one-year tax assessed last year that Gov. Christie vowed not to renew.  This month (May 2010), Democrats in New Jersey are seeking to pass a tax on households making over $1 million to spare programs for senior citizens and disabled residents cut in the Christie budget, but Christie has promised to veto the bill.

6  See Joseph E. Slater, “Public Sector Labor Law before Legalized Collective Bargaining,” in Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law and the State, 1900-1962 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004), 71-96; and Sterling D. Spero, “The Legal Right to Organize and Strike,” in Government as Employer(New York: Remsen Press, 1948), 16-43.

7  Marjorie Murphy, Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press),214-20.  The Taylor Law was most recently, and infamously, used to break the New York City transit workers strike in December 2005.

8  Stephen C. Shannon, “Work Stoppage in Government: The Postal Strike of 1970,” Monthly Labor Review 101, no. 7 (July 1978): 14-22.

9  Slater, Public Workers, 1.

10  Craypo, “The Decline in Union Bargaining Power,” 4.

Kevin C. Brown is a doctoral candidate in the history department at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Pa.), where he studies American environmental and labor history.  He is also the host of the radio program, “History for the Future,” which explores the intersection of history, politics, and society, and airs on WRCT-Pittsburgh 88.3 fm and

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