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Ransacking the public sector: The assault on government employee unions

Legend has it that elected officials, government administrators, and public service employees generally got along prior to the 1960s. Legend, however, ignores the likes of postal workers, teachers, firefighters, and police officers who began organizing themselves in the late 1800s. The number of public employees who joined unions doubled during the Progressive Era which effectively came to an end with the crushing of the Boston Police Strike in 1919. Forty years later, the anti-union after-effects of that piece of history remained. While some government employees were organized into associations or federations, they did not have a right to bargain collectively, much less a right to strike. Nation-wide membership in these groups was about 500,000.

By the early 1970s, postal service, public safety, sanitation, social work, and education had all been hit by work stoppages of various kinds and a growing number of public sector organizations had adopted the term union to identify themselves. Membership in public employee unions approached five million by the mid-1970s, a tenfold increase in less than a decade. Heightened militancy resulted in recognition of the right of collective bargaining for government employees, although their right to strike was generally prohibited.1

Today, about 60% of government employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements (CBA). Union membership among these workers numbers around seven million, roughly 33% of all government personnel. In contrast, approximately 12% of all private sector employees are covered by a CBA. And while the number of private sector union members is also around seven million, union membership in the much larger private sector workforce has fallen to less than 7%. Given this situation, union busters have turned their attention to the public sector. Bankrolled by corporations and wealthy individuals such as the Koch brothers, anti-union crusaders aim to wipe out the union label once and for all. Their current attacks will most certainly drive down the pay and benefits of public employees, increase income inequality, and reduce the size of the middle class.

Wisconsin was the first state to recognize public employee unions, doing so in 1959. Then, in 1962, President John Kennedy issued an executive order (EO 10988) granting federal employees the right to bargain collectively. Government employee unionization took off in the 1970s and, at present, a majority of states and the federal government permit collective bargaining. Statutory as well as case law governing state and municipal workers makes for a hodge-podge of legal frameworks. Regarding federal employees, Congress has limited the issues over which they can bargain.

As California governor (1967-1975), Ronald Reagan oversaw the expansion of public sector unions in that state. As president, Reagan fired the air traffic controllers for engaging in a strike prohibited by federal law. His action was not an attack on government employee unions per se; in fact, he actively sought and won PATCO’s (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) endorsement during his 1980 presidential campaign. Many conservatives since Reagan, however, have viewed his undoing of the air traffic controllers union in 1981 as a signal to destroy public sector collective bargaining.

These days anti-union politicians try to hide behind appeals to fiscal responsibility and budget problem solutions. Republican governors such as Chris Christie (NJ), John Kasich (OH), Rick Scott (FL), Mitch Snyder (MI) and Scott Walker (WI) were swept into office due to the Great Recession of 2007-09. They asserted that state financial difficulties could be resolved by limiting or eliminating public employee unions and collective bargaining. Their successes have been uneven. New Jersey’s Christie entered office declaring war on public employee health and pension benefits and continues to do so as his second term comes to an end. Ohio’s Kasich saw his effort to outlaw public sector strikes rebuked by popular referendum. But these governors set the stage for an anti-labor agenda that stormed through sixteen states, all of them politically controlled by the GOP.2 Walker’s victory in Wisconsin was especially demoralizing to organized labor given that the state had been the first to recognize the right of government employees to unionize.

The peak years of anti-public union legislation were 2011 and 2012, but the initial attack was Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ (R) 2005 executive order eliminating collective bargaining for state workers. Moreover, union busting emerged in 2015 in Illinois when newly elected governor Bruce Rauner (R) attempted to unilaterally enact local “union free” zones, abolish agency fees and impose his own contract terms in the case of impasse. Most recently, Iowa’s 2017 legislative session eliminated forty years of collective bargaining for public employees in a process that took ten days from the bill’s introduction to Governor Terry Branstad’s (R) signature.3 Iowa’s law has been compared to Wisconsin’s, but the former outdoes the latter by requiring public employee unions to recertify prior to the expiration of each contract and the reopening of negotiations.

The state of affairs in Florida is a curious one. The first statewide teachers strike in U.S. history occurred there in 1968. That same year, a revision of Florida’s constitution guaranteed both private and public sector workers the right to collective bargaining. Public employees were denied the right to strike and the state’s so-called “right to work” clause was preserved.4 Jumping ahead some four decades, Rick Scott entered the governor’s office in 2011 claiming that he thought collective bargaining was okay so long as people “know what they are doing” and “know what they’re voting for”—whatever that meant—but he quickly changed his tune, saying that public sector bargaining should not be the constitutionally protected right that it is in the state.

During Scott’s first year as governor, he signed legislation requiring public employees to relinquish a portion of their paychecks to contribute to retirement pensions. Scott has since expressed his desire to convert public institutions into business operations; among his recommendations was an idea to get rid of civil service and tenure so that state government and higher education faculty jobs could be eliminated. On this score, he has had the complete support of the GOP super-majority in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate where a few moderate Republicans have prevented additional anti-union legislation from being adopted. In one instance, payroll deduction of union dues was in jeopardy but it remains on the books. State House member Scott Plakon submitted a bill this year to decertify collective bargaining units with less than 50% membership. The proposal passed overwhelmingly in the lower chamber but it failed to be reported out of committee in the upper house. Plakon first introduced this legislation in 2011, and he can be expected to do so again next year.

Conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and right-wing policy shops like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have been pushing back against public sector collective bargaining for several decades. Only with the sharp decline of the economy in 2007-09, however, did those opposed to government employee unions gain traction. Having developed conservative legislative proposals and established conservative political networks, ideologically driven anti-union forces were ready to fight. Upon becoming Wisconsin’s governor, for example, Scott Walker hurriedly introduced an ALEC inspired anti-labor scheme intended to limit collective bargaining to wages only, eliminate payroll deductions for union dues, and increase the amount that state government workers contribute to their health care and pension plans. Since passage, membership in the statewide teacher’ union has fallen by 50%. Things are even worse at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) where membership has plummeted by two-thirds.

As the battle in Wisconsin was ramping up in 2011, conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg published a column in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Public Unions Must Go.”5 Hugely popular in the right-wing blogosphere, Goldberg’s piece tapped into growing resentment of public employees and their unions. He even invokes liberal icon Franklin Roosevelt and labor leader George Meany to buttress his argument. Goldberg has Roosevelt pronouncing that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood [my italics], cannot be transplanted into the public service.” Meanwhile, he has Meany opining that it “is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

Conservative appeals to the likes of FDR and Meany are disingenuous. For one thing, the Roosevelt quote cited above is from a 1937 letter that FDR wrote to the National Federation of Federal Employees congratulating the union on the twentieth anniversary of its founding. Secondly, his comment reflected the convention of the day in which it was assumed that the collective bargaining process included potential labor strikes. An actual reading of FDR’s letter shows him encouraging public employee unions while conveying opposition to their right to strike. Finally, right-wingers conveniently ignore the fact that Roosevelt accepted unions at the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Government Printing Office.6

As for Meany, the quote mentioned above is from a 1955 New York Times Magazine article. Somewhere along the line, however, he changed his mind. In 1960, the AFL-CIO formally approved public sector collective bargaining. Meany then called Kennedy’s 1962 executive order recognizing federal unions a “Wagner Act for public employees.” Lastly, Meany proclaimed in 1976 that he foresaw a future in which public sector collective bargaining would be the norm in federal, state, and local settings. Thus, conservatives who use Meany’s view of government employee unions in 1955 fail to take into account his shifting position on the matter.7

Despite the baying of conservatives and reactionaries, no consistent relationship exists between budget shortfalls and public sector unions. As the nation’s economy was slowly recovering from the Great Recession, Texas, which bans public sector collective bargaining had a larger deficit as a percentage of its budget than California, a strong public sector union state. New York, where 70% of government employees are unionized, and South Carolina, which forbids public sector collective bargaining, had the same deficit to budget levels. And North Carolina, a third state that bars government employee unions, had a higher deficit to budget ratio than Pennsylvania, another strong public sector union state. Rather than blame public employees for fiscal crises, one might look at housing foreclosure rates and regressive tax structures to explain such economic calamities.

Free market pundits mimic one another in alleging that government workers are overpaid relative to those in the private sector. However, simply putting employees in each sector side by side and then pointing out that some government workers make more money is spurious. For one thing, it fails to take into account that public sector employees are, on the whole, better educated and older in age, two factors that generally translate into higher wages. While cohort assessments (measuring comparable skills and work) can be difficult, an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) analysis discloses that public sector workers are generally paid less than those in the private sector.

A further right-wing canard about public sector unions is that their pension programs are bankrupting state governments. This argument is a ruse of the highest order. Most government employee pensions are determined by law, not by bargaining. And the vast majority of these pensions are modest, either below or on par with those in the private sector. Making matters worse, many state governments raided public pension funds for years to pay for tax cuts and general operating expenses. Governors and state legislators then tried relying on risky Wall Street investments to cover their fiscal irresponsibility. Now these same politicians hypocritically blame public employees for abuses of the system.

In addition to the executive and legislative branches, anti-public sector campaigners have also turned to the judiciary in their offensive. Here they aim to prevent unions from collecting agency fees—also known as fair share fees—from members of a bargaining unit who are not members of the union. More than twenty states permit this practice which is a way to absorb free riders who benefit from collective bargaining but do not pay dues. In addition to covering the cost of contract negotiations, grievance procedures, and the like, dues in these states can be used to engage in political activities such as lobbying and electoral activity. In contrast, agency fees can only be used for union business.

In 2016, the Supreme Court’s consideration of Friedrichs v California Teachers Association placed such fees in danger. The High Court’s 4-4 decision protects such fees for the time being, but the matter will likely come before the justices again, probably sooner rather than later. The right-wing Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which was behind Friedrichs, has filed a new lawsuit, Yohn v CTA. President Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia’s death restores the court’s 5-4 conservative majority. Given this circumstance, the Supreme Court ruling in any future case would likely mean the end of agency fees. And that would, without a doubt, diminish public employee unions.

Ultimately, political attacks on government workers are part of a comprehensive assault by those hostile to the public sector. In the process of destroying unions, they intend to underfund public programs in pursuit of their goal of privatizing as much of the commonwealth as possible. No matter that several decades of government contracting out public services to corporations reveals few benefits. Never mind the evidence that shows privatization results in higher costs, poorer delivery of services, and less accountability. Almost 50% of union members in the United States today work in the public sector. By necessity, they will have to play a major role in the rebuilding of organized labor. But like private sector unions before them, government employee unions face circumstances threatening their very existence.


  1. Twelve states permit some public employees to strike: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.
  2. Republicans currently hold 33 governorships. They also have a bi-cameral majority in 32 state legislatures. Nebraska’s one house legislature is majority Republican as well.
  3. Branstad resigned the Iowa governorship following his recent confirmation as ambassador to China.
  4. At present, twenty eight states have either “right to work” statutes or constitutional provisions. Arkansas and Florida were the first states to authorize this practice, both doing so in 1944. Missouri did so most recently, enacting “right to work” in 2017. Congressmen Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Steve King (R-IA) have submitted a bill to establish a national “right to work” law. If passed, the legislation would supersede all state laws. Donald Trump campaigned in favor of “right to work” during the 2016 presidential election.
  5. Goldberg acknowledges that private sector unions had a legitimate role to play in management-labor relations. But he claims that government social policies protecting working people make them less relevant and necessary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Goldberg goes on to decry social justice, calling the concept stupid, and appealing to the ghost of Friedrich Hayek in the process.
  6. While FDR was indignant about the intransigence of employers and he earned the undying enmity of anti-union business leaders with his unwillingness to employ force to break strikes as government had so often done in the past, he was actually annoyed that people thought he was facilitating unionism. Roosevelt was more interested in developing social legislation to help workers than he was in seeing them achieve gains through independent organization. In fact, his view was eerily similar to the “social justice” policies that Goldberg dismisses.
  7. Notwithstanding George Meany’s evolving position on public sector unionism, the Cold War labor leader’s views and actions remained staunchly conservative on many other matters. He proudly announced that he never walked a picket line in his life. Under his leadership, the AFL-CIO worked with US-based multinational corporations and the CIA to destabilize democratically elected Latin American governments and undermine independent union activity in the region. He also did everything short of formally endorsing Richard Nixon in his 1972 re-election campaign. The fact that Meany paid little attention to organizing non-industrial and service workers during his tenure as AFL-CIO president is one reason for organized labor’s decline beginning in the 1970s. His brand of unionism was largely white, male, and hostile to diversity.

1 Comment

  • In my experience as a former private sector union member, anti-union sentiment is nothing less than false economy for workers as well as the community.

    Great piece, Michael. Thanks.