Jake Rosenfeld is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington and Co-Director of the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest. His book on the consequences of labor union decline, What Unions No Longer Do, is available from Harvard University Press. This is his response to Dmitri Mehlhorn’s post, responding to Professor Rosenfeld’s reply to Mr. Mehlhorn’s Daily Beast article.
Dmitri Mehlhorn’s thoughtful reply highlights a few fundamental points of agreement, including the importance of unions in the private sector to better the living conditions of poor Americans. Where we disagree is over the legitimacy and impact of public sector unions. In what follows I take up two of Mr. Mehlhorn’s core claims: one, that public sector unions “bear some responsibility for the decline of organized labor,” and two, that public sector unions “hurt the overall interests of the working poor.”
I’ll address this second claim first. Mr. Mehlhorn argues that because the “consumers” of many public services are themselves poor, then organizing the providers of these services pits public sector workers against their customers. An example would be the BART strike, which disrupted the lives of thousands of disproportionately poor Bay Area residents. By this logic, we should also oppose the collective bargaining rights of Walmart workers, fast food employees, and indeed workers at any business that serves low-income Americans (leaving chauffeurs and shoe shiners as possible routes for union expansion). Strikes inevitably affect consumers — if they didn’t, they’d be a toothless tactic. Unions endeavor to convince the public that management is to blame for any inconvenience, and management tries the opposite. Sometimes unions succeed, as in the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012. Sometimes they don’t, but this is true regardless of sector.
More generally, if public sector unionism did hurt the poor, we’d expect to see deeper levels of disadvantage in those countries with strong public sector unions. The opposite is true. Sweden, Norway, and Finland somehow survive with public sector union density rates over twice as high as our own, and yet have substantially lower poverty levels. Closer to home, Canada has a public sector unionization rate of 70%, double that of the U.S., and lower poverty rates. Just focusing on the United States, recent research has uncovered strong, negative links between a state’s unionization rate and its poverty level. With nearly half of all union members now working in the public sector, much of the connection between union strength and lower poverty at the state level is due to public sector unions.
Regarding the relationship between public and private sector unionism: the causes of union decline are manifold, and we await a concise explanation that assigns each contributing factor a precise weight. That does not mean that we lack an understanding of what these factors are, and what factors are unlikely to have caused private sector organization rates to fall so precipitously. If public sector unions’ unpopularity put pressure on private sector unions, as Mr. Mehlhorn suggests, then the initial surge in public sector unions should have led to private sector decline in the same locations. And if the rise of public sector unions drew away organizing talent from the private sector, then shouldn’t that too have occurred where private sector unions were in a free fall?