Guest Post: Public Sector Unions — Some History and Economics

Published July 18th, 2014 -  - 07.18.143

Andrew Strom is Associate General Counsel of SEIU Local 32BJ.  This post is the next in a series of responses to Dmitri Mehlhorn’s Daily Beast article and follow up post; Professor Jake Rosenfeld’s responses are here and here.

Dmitri Mehlhorn has made two attention-getting assertions:  (1) public sector unions have harmed the interests of the working poor; and (2) public sector unions have hurt the labor movement.  While he claims that his assertions are “grounded in labor history and simple economics,” in fact, his claims ignore history and are based on simplistic economics.

First, the history.  Mehlhorn implies that the labor movement would be stronger today if unions had simply turned their backs on public sector workers in the 1960s and 70s.  Perhaps it would be helpful to recall the circumstances of the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968:

Taylor Rogers and Elmore Nickelberry were among the 1,300 who walked off the job in 1968. Rogers remembers picking up tubs of garbage that were full of holes.  “That garbage would leak all over you,” he says. By the time he got home, his clothes were dirty and full of maggots that had fallen on him.  “I had maggots run down in my shirts, and then maggots would go down in my shoes,” Nickelberry says.

Those sanitation workers went on a strike that was supported by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after two workers were crushed to death because they had to ride in the barrel of a truck that malfunctioned.

Even today, many public sector workers are part of the working poor.  Food service workers at public schools are often paid the minimum wage.  The homecare workers at issue in Harris v. Quinn earned the minimum wage before they unionized.  Even where public sector workers earn middle class wages, Mehlhorn is guilty of oversimplification.  For instance, Mehlhorn complains about the cost of pensions for BART workers, but he fails to acknowledge that BART employees, like many public sector workers, are excluded from Social Security, so they desperately need their pensions in order to be able to retire with dignity.  Likewise, his claim that poor Americans are harmed when teachers are laid off via Last-in, First-Out, is highly questionable.

Mehlhorn’s economic claims are also suspect.  He asserts that poor people who benefit from public services are harmed if public sector workers earn middle-class wages.  But, this ignores the effect of public sector wages on the overall labor market.  State and local governments directly employ over 19 million people.  Private sector employers compete with government employers to attract and retain workers.  When public sector wages go up, there is pressure on the private sector to raise wages as well.  Likewise, any effort to drive down wages and benefits for public sector workers will exert downward pressure on private sector wages and benefits.  Mehlhorn’s attacks on public sector workers also divert attention from the real culprits who are harming the working poor.  For instance, Mehlhorn suggests that in the Bay Area, residents must choose between middle class wages for BART workers and adequate funding for early childhood education.  But given the fabulous wealth generated in that area, isn’t the real problem that virtually all gains are going to a handful of people at the top of the economic ladder?  To take another example, the best estimate is that states and localities spend $50 billion on tax incentives each year, bidding against each other to attract and retain businesses.  Putting a stop to this arms race would go a long way toward funding public services.

Jake Rosenfeld has already ably responded to the claim that public sector unions harmed private sector unions by “sucking up the oxygen.”  But, I will add a couple of additional points.  First, the assumption that unions would have done more private sector organizing in the 1960s and 70s if they hadn’t been organizing in the public sector is questionable at best.  In 1972, when AFL-CIO President George Meany was asked about the reasons for declining union density, he famously replied, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”  Second, Mehlhorn says that unions should focus more on organizing janitors and other low wage workers in the private sector.  But, he conveniently ignores the fact that the union behind the Justice for Janitors movement, SEIU, is also one of the largest public sector unions in the country.  SEIU’s public and private sector membership do not compete with each other, but rather work together as part of the same fight for economic justice.

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