public sector unions

Mike Yates mikey+ at
Tue Jul 14 06:50:56 PDT 1998


Doug asked about the effects on organized labor of the increasing importance of public sector unions in the AFL-CIO. Paul Johnston has written about this. See his book, "Success While Others Fail" (Cornell, 1994) and his article, circa 1980 in "Monthly Review" titled "The Promise of Public Service Unionism." I wrote an article long ago on this subject: "Public Employee Unions and the Labor Movement," in Public Sector Crisis Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1982). Ever the optimist, I argued that the public sector held out great hope for the rejuvenation of the labor movement. For one thing, the membership is more diverse by race and gender, since public employment is itself more diverse (though I don't think you here the public sector unions arguing forcefully that public sector cutbacks are both racist and sexist). So to the extent that public unions become more powerful in organized labor, this should make the fed's leadership more diverse. Second, the public unions might be able to build coalitions with the public more easily than private sector unions since their members often provide essential public services. Third, politics are of critical importance to these unions so this could lead to a more politicized labor movement. However, the importance of politics also probably leads to a focus on lobbying rather than rank-and-file activism (the railroad unions are good examples, though their workers are not strictly speaking public employees). The attachment to the democratic party is strong among public unions and this creates problems. These unions put heat on the AFL-CIO not to strongly support Kate Bronfenbrenner's study of employer threats to plant closings. She argued that NAFTA had increased the incidence of such threats in organizing and bargaining campaigns. The AFL-CIO had funded the study but the public unions did not want to embarrass Clinton so the federation support for the publication of her study (which was being blocked by the Dept. of Labor) was very weak. I also argued that the scope of bargaining might be wider in public sector unions both because some of them cannot bargain over wages (federal employees) and because of the nature of some of the work This too could lead to alliances with the public, as when teachers bargain over smaller class sizes or nurses over patient loads. Again, the promise has not often been realized.

These are very preliminary and cursory thoughts. Perhaps others can deepen the discussion.

Michael Yates

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