Guest Post: Public Sector Unions and the Public Interest–Rosenfeld Responds

Jake Rosenfeld

Jake Rosenfeld is Associate Professor of Sociology at Washington University-St. Louis.  He is the author of What Unions No Longer Do (Harvard University Press, 2014).  For more on his work, see www.jakerosenfeld.net. 

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?

It didn’t.  Public sector unionism spread unevenly, and sporadically, with the result that today there is enormous cross-state variation in public sector organization rates.  Mississippi has the lowest public sector organization rate in the country (and the highest poverty rate), followed by states like South Carolina and Arkansas.  These are also states with some of the lowest private sector organization rates.  Mississippi’s public sector unionization rate is 1/15 that of New York’s, the state with the highest rate of public sector unionism.  New York’s private sector unionization rate, meanwhile, is three times higher than the national average.  Thus, the purported unpopularity of public sector unions has translated into a comparatively high rate of private sector organizing in states like New York.  And New York is not alone.  In general, states with strong public sector unions maintain comparatively high private sector organization rates.

Is it plausible that early organizing successes among government employees in states like New York led to an exodus of talented union organizers from Mississippi and elsewhere, causing the collapse of private sector unions?  I suppose, but there is no evidence for it.  There is an abundance of evidence pointing to a convergence of factors that help rid the private sector of existing unions while preventing new ones from forming.  First, economic developments — including the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s — put  pressure on the labor movement.  Simultaneously, businesses began organizing and developed a set of effective anti-union strategies, some legal, some not.  Their effort was aided by a changing political environment which prevented the passage of any new labor laws that would rebalance the playing field and help organized labor regain some of its lost ground.  An influx of “organizing talent” will not change these key obstacles unions face in the private sector.

This debate about public sector unions’ contemporary role is an important one, because in recent years public sector unions have come under increasing attack not only by traditional union opponents on the right, but also by a growing number of powerful Democrats and their supporters.  Mr. Mehlhorn maintains that the attacks stem from public sector unions’ own actions — indeed from the ability of public sector workers to bargain collectively in the first place.  I suggest the timing of the attacks comes from the fact that over the past half century private sector unions have been devastated, leaving public sector unions as the most prominent face of today’s labor movement.  For union opponents, there is nobody else left to kick around.

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