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.
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.