Guest Post: The Importance of Public Sector Unions

Published July 14th, 2014 -  - 07.14.1412


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.

Dmitri Mehlhorn’s provocative article, “Why Progressives Shouldn’t Support Public Workers Unions,” deserves points for creativity.  It is also important for making explicit what many Democratic voters and lawmakers undoubtably believe.  But it’s the wrong message.  There is much to take issue with in the article; below, I focus on a few issues in need of clarification.

First, a factual inaccuracy: In the opening paragraph, Mr. Mehlhorn writes that in the aftermath of Harris v. Quinn, “public unions may not be allowed to obtain compulsory dues from their members.  Compulsory dues translate into many tens of millions of dollars in political contributions to Democrats.”  The case in question was about nonmembers and the requirement that they pay “fair share fees” to cover the cost of representation (since the union must bargain for the entire workforce–members and those, like the plaintiffs, who choose not to join).  And these fees do not and cannot go into political lobbying –they cover the costs of collective bargaining only.

Now, onto the argument.  Mr. Mehlhorn suggests that private sector unions declined because of the rise of public unionism, writing that “Essentially, the public-sector unions sucked up all the oxygen.”  Decades of research indicate otherwise, pointing to factors such as deindustrialization and concerted efforts by private sector employers to shed existing unions and prevent the formation of new ones.   These employers took advantage of a legal framework in the private sector that presents numerous obstacles to collective action among workers, and provides numerous opportunities for employers to thwart organization efforts.

Ignoring these actual causes of private sector union decline, Mr. Mehlhorn argues that to make inroads among what he sees as truly deserving workers, unions and their progressive allies must jettison their unpopular public sector members and focus on comparatively downtrodden occupations such as janitors and farmworkers.  Why?  “Both the general public and economic elites have a lot of sympathy for janitors who are trying to make ends meet.”

That’s an interesting occupation to focus on, since just a few decades ago this “sympathy” translated into the deunionization of the janitorial workforce by economic elites.  That many janitors today only can afford to try and make ends meet is a direct result of the degradation of their occupation through a concerted effort to strip them of collective bargaining rights.  Same story with farmworkers, who had achieved real gains in those jurisdictions where strong unions providing crucial support, most notably the UFW.  The notion that union decline among building cleaning staff, farmworkers, and other occupations in today’s increasingly precarious private sector is due to these unions’ “guilt-by-association” with unpopular teachers and bus drivers is, frankly, misguided.  They declined because the economic elites who operated the buildings and ran the farms decided unions were costing them money and power.

In the end, Mr. Mehlhorn’s core argument is an old one.  Whenever jobs pay particularly well and the people who occupy them obtain a bit of power in the workplace–whether they be the school bus drivers he cites or longshoremen–people like Mehlhorn argue that unions are unnecessary because, well, look at how well the workers are treated! Invariably, they then point to precarious jobs paying poverty-level wages as those that are  truly in need of collective representation.  But it is through the act of collective representation that precarious, low-paying jobs get lifted up–that is the story of longshoreman who now enjoy six-figure salaries, bus drivers who in certain jurisdictions enjoy a middle-class life, and other occupations where workers have come together to bargain with their bosses.

In today’s hollowed-out economy, it’s especially important to protect relatively stable, middle-class jobs.  Deindustrialization and the devastation of private sector unions means that many of these jobs are now located in the public sector.  These good jobs, however, don’t pay middle-class wages and offer stability by some act of nature–many of their attributes were won and protected by public sector unions.

And here is where the Harris v. Quinn case is relevant.  In recent years unions have successfully signed up tens of thousands of disproportionately female and disproportionately minority home health care workers.  The unions have delivered tangible benefits–in the form of raises and standardized training–to an occupation that was previously characterized by rock-bottom wages and precarious working conditions.  Absent public sector unions, this wouldn’t have happened.  Harris v. Quinn makes unions’ jobs in these fights a bit more difficult, but not impossible.  The notion that abandoning these workers furthers the cause of “progressivism” makes no sense.

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