What public sector unions can teach us about democracy

Earlier this year, images of teachers protesting for higher wages in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma flooded the airwaves as teachers took action against years, if not decades, of stagnant wages being asked to do more with less in the classroom. Teachers are one visible example of a public sector union, but many other state and federal employees from bus drivers to accounts are part unions, too.

Paul Clark
Paul Clark

In fact, public sector union participation is higher than it is in the private sector. In theory, this means that public employees  can advocate for the resources they need to make public life better for everyone. However, only about half of the states give their employees the right to unionize, and unions within the federal government are limited in what they can bargain for.

Those bargaining rights could become even more limited as the Supreme Court prepares to rule in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which will decide whether people who are not members of these unions have to pay union fees.

To help sort through this, we talked with Paul Clark, the director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State and an expert on unions. This is a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from the history of public sector unions (they’re newer than you might expect) to the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus case.

We also talked with Paul about the impact that public sector unions have on democracy and what happens if they continue to weaken. Even unions that don’t have the ability to bargain over wages have managed to get creative about making their voice heard, but that can’t last forever. These are some of the people who are out there every day doing what it takes to make democracy work, and any efforts to curb their collective power could weaken their ability to do so.

Recommended Reading

Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court ruling

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you support the idea of public sector employees being able to unionize?
  • Why do you think they should or should not have this right?
  • Do you think there is something uniquely different between private and public sector workers that impacts whether or not they should be able to organize?
  • Given that tax payers pay the salaries for public workers, should they have a seat at the table when dealing with public sector unions?
  • Paul discussed a pending Supreme Court case where public employees may no longer be required to pay membership dues to unions that they don’t want to join. Where do you fall on this issue?
  • Do you think union membership will increase or continue to fall going forward?

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What types of public employees unionize that people might not think of naturally when they think of public unions?

Paul: Unions represent public workers at all levels. This means there are public unions at the federal, state, and local level. There is a wide array of services provided by people who are member of public workers unions.

[7:00] How did those groups come to be unionized?

Paul: Private sector workers got the right to organize and strike in the 1930s. Public workers were specifically restricted from getting those rights. This meant that public workers salaries lagged behind those of private sectors because private sector salaries increased as a result of being able to unionize. However, in the 60s, as part of other social movements, we saw public sector unions finally get the same rights to organize as those in the private sector. This was done at the state level. However, even today, only about half of the states extend this right to public employees. At the federal level, these rights are limited.

[8:40] In the time since public workers could unionize, have their salaries caught up with those in the private sector?

Paul: These public unions have been successful in improving the conditions of their workers in the states where workers have been able to organize. Pennsylvania is a good example as they were the first state to allow public workers to organize and strike. Here, you can track the improvement in benefits of these employees since the 70’s.

[10:00] There is the idea amongst the public that going into public work is almost altruistic because such workers can usually make more in the private sector. Does this play into union efforts of public workers at all?

Paul: Yes, it does. But just because these workers feel the need to bargain for better wages to support their families does not mean there is any less of a sense of service in doing what they do for the public.

[11:40] In the private sector, union fights are seen as the people against “the man”. How does this relationship look in the public sector?

Paul: Just like in the private sector, the managing director in public positions make the critical decisions for those workers. Much like a democratic system, unions work to ensure that all the power isn’t held by a small few over the masses. Unions bring this democracy to the workplace.

[14:30] We’ve heard a lot about a decline in private sector union membership. Is this trend reflected in public sector unions?

Paul: One reason we’ve seen private membership decrease is that private companies have decided to take them on and limit their power. In 2010, we saw these efforts to limit private sector being turned towards public sector unions because public membership was on the rise. The first battleground for this was Wisconsin. There, we saw a number of laws passed aimed at limiting the power of public unions. This turned into a wave within other states to limit the ability of public unions to operate effectively. The result is that we’ve seen considerable decline in public union membership. The next step in this effort to weaken public sector unions is a Supreme Court case that could prevent unions from being able to charge all of those receiving benefits under it four dues to the union.

[19:14] In Arizona, we saw a teachers union endorse a political candidate. Can you speak to this new growth in the political activity of public unions?

Paul: Many aspects of public workers careers are impacted by public laws. Therefore, they have a strong incentive to become active in the political process. The interesting thing about the developments in Arizona is that this is a state where public workers aren’t able to organize. While there are technically workers unions in that state, they can’t be involved with setting salaries in any way. As a result tax cuts have passed unchallenged and the about of tax dollars going towards education has decreased over the years.

[22:00] Do you think it’s possible for a new public sector union to develop in 2018?

Paul: This would be a very ambitious goal given the current political climate. However, even without formal unions, you have individuals who can use their voice to advocate for these types of things. I think these cases are instructive in showing the importance of these unions. There is a correlation between states with the best education standards and the best benefits for their teachers.

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