Guest Post: Public Sector Unions and the Poor

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 post is the next in a series on progressives and public sector unions—the entire series is available here.

Dmitri Mehlhorn has eloquently presented the case against public sector unionism, raising important questions about its costs and implications for the future of the labor movement.  In his most recent post, for example, Mr. Mehlhorn takes issue with the argument that public sector unions have contributed to “social justice” and “prosperity” in the U.S. Instead, he contends that the demands public sector unions place on government coffers “increase the cost and reduce the availability of public services,” thereby hurting the disadvantaged more than others given poor Americans’ disproportionate reliance on public services.  But this notion that public sector unions hurt the poor gets the true relationships between poverty, the public sector, and organized labor all wrong.

If mid-1970s New York City—one of Mr. Mehlhorn’s examples—was a representative case of what public sector unions do to jurisdictions in which they are powerful, then we’d expect to find similar patterns today.  Of the ten states with the highest public sector unionization rates, seven have poverty rates below or at the national average.  Of the ten states with the lowest public sector unionization rates, meanwhile, seven have above-average poverty levels.  Is this decisive evidence that strong public sector unions cause lower poverty?  Of course not.  But it’s certainly not the pattern one would expect to see if public sector unions increased the cost and reduced the availability of services to the poor.

Other research is more dispositive: in a comprehensive statistical examination of what causes household poverty in the U.S., sociologist David Brady and his colleagues find that two key predictors of lower poverty is state-level unionization and working in the public sector.  That is, households with a member in the public sector are less likely to be poor, and households in highly-unionized states are less likely to be poor, net of a range of other important factors influencing poverty.  Reflecting on rising attacks on public sector unions, the authors conclude that, “Even if deunionization reduces public sector costs, the resulting increase in working poverty may lower tax revenue as well.”

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Guest Post: Progressives and Public Sector Unions–Mehlhorn Responds

Dmitri Mehlhorn is a Democratic donor and activist.  His legal publications include A Requiem for Blockbusting and The Fettered Liberty to Integrate.  He is a partner with the investment network Vidinovo.  This post is the next in a series on progressives and public sector unions—the entire series is available here.

SEIU Local 32BJ Associate General Counsel Andrew Strom has joined Professor Jake Rosenfeld in critiquing the progressive case against compulsory dues in the public sector.

Strom’s engagement matters, as the SEIU may be the single most important audience for this discussion.  Since the Daily Beast published my initial essay, Democratic donors and activists have contacted me with the specific concern that public sector organizing is weakening the SEIU’s efficacy as a force for justice.  The SEIU is a great example of how labor organizers share tactics and ideas nationally.  If the SEIU were to focus on private sector workers, it could throw tremendous momentum behind the movement for living wages.  Instead, the SEIU is an example of how public labor organizing can suck the oxygen out of private labor organizing across geographies.

To refocus the substantive discussion, let me review the economic and political realities that have been addressed only tangentially by Strom and Rosenfeld. Public services are monopolies. Collective bargaining in such situations weakens checks and balances, because public unions control the careers of their negotiating counterparties.  As a result, wages, benefits, work rules, and public policies tend to increase the cost and reduce the availability of public services.  Poor citizens rely more than others on these public services.  Together, all of this erodes political support for the overall labor movement.

In response to these realities, Strom & Rosenfeld offer two common rebuttals:

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Guest Post: Public Sector Unions — Some History and Economics

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.

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

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?

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Guest Post: Why Progressives Shouldn’t Support Public Unions–Mehlhorn replies to Rosenfeld

Dmitri Mehlhorn is a Democratic donor and activist.  His legal publications include A Requiem for Blockbusting and The Fettered Liberty to Integrate.  He is a partner with the investment network Vidinovo.

In Monday’s OnLabor post, Jake Rosenfeld critiques my argument in the Daily Beast that progressives should oppose compulsory dues and collective bargaining for public sector workers.

Before responding to his points, it’s worth noting our areas of agreement: organized labor can enhance the bargaining power of low-skilled workers vis-à-vis customers and capital; organized labor can increase the relative position of even non-unionized working poor by promoting living wages; living wage laws can promote economic growth and civil society. Professor Rosenfeld and I thus agree with pragmatic and fact-based economists such as Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and venture capitalists such as Nick Hanauer, while parting company with laissez-faire ideologues.

Our disagreement centers on public sector unions: (1) technically, how much do compulsory dues translate into political dollars; (2) have public sector unions harmed the interests of the working poor; and (3) specifically, have public sector unions hurt the labor movement?

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Guest Post: The Importance of Public Sector Unions

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.