Skip to main content

labor Public Sector Unions Confront Attacks as Economy Remains Exclusive

The attack on public sector unions intensifies. Public sector unions must now form audacious, coalitions and alliances with private sector unions, and those secular and spiritual organizations.

printer friendly  

Supreme Court Attack


In January 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the landmark case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The Court vote was four to four. This tie affirmed a lower court ruling that denied the challenge to abolish the agency fee requirement.


That law was established in 1977 with the precedent Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. It allowed employees who did not belong to the union to pay only for the direct representation they received from that union. These “free riders” were not compelled to contribute to any political or social views of the union. There were some participation restrictions as well.

The Friedrichs case was more than a financial attack against unions. The case was an indirect attack on the right of public sector unions to exist. 


Many unions would collapse without agency fee payments. Virulent anti-union propaganda has indoctrinated some union members to vote against their own interests. No surprise there. It’s prominent in the strategy of those with economic prerogatives to maintain that power. Public sector unions are an indirect threat to the power of the business sector. Their agenda has always been to pay as little taxes as possible. They constantly seek to transfer that burden to working people. What better way to do that than destroy unions that bargain for fair living standards for their members.


The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is a gang of pettifoggers working for the National Right to Work Committee (NRWC). They are leading the attacks against the agency fee law.


The NRWC is one of several groups representing the worst excesses of corporate greed. Their unspoken purpose is to decimate employee union rights. Other supporting groups are the American Legislative Exchange Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce


There are at least five cases weaving their way to the Supreme Court which will be heard this year. The most recent one was filed on November 30 last year as Janus v. AFSCME. This case may be more compelling than Friedrichs or the other cases that are headed toward the Supreme Court.


The most prominent case is Serna v. Transport Workers Union of America. The case involves private employees under the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Act.


Part of the ruling in the Abood case was based upon prior decisions of that Railway Labor Act. If the case is successful, many believe that it will overturn Abood and the agency fee law.


The Trump Administration has filled the vacancy on the Supreme Court with Judge Neil Gorsuch. His record is unequivocally hostile to working people and unions. His record is foreboding for working people and unions.


Union Numbers Decline


Private sector union membership has dramatically declined in the last 40 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in January that in 2016 private sector union membership fell to an anemic 6.4 percent. Public sector employees had a union membership rate of just 34.4 percent.


Public Sector/Private Sector Union Symmetry


Public sector unions are portrayed by anti-unionists as fundamentally different and less valid than their private sector counterparts. They are not. It is just another attempt to divide working people.


The motivation of these journalists, pundits, and academics is transparent. They advocate for the extinction of public sector unions. Their attacks are increasing on public sector unions now that private sector unions have been largely decimated in numbers.


There is a basic fact that cannot be disputed-the employer/employee relationship in public sector unions is identical to private sector unions.


It is fundamental that public sector union employees are subjected to the same work issues as private sector employees.


Management exerts complete and arbitrary control over the work environment in both public and private union members. Management decides work assignments, responsibilities, hiring, terminations, discipline, work conditions, break time, pay, vacation, sick time, and any virtually any other component of the work day.


The motivation of management is the same in both public and private sector unions; it is to minimize the share of compensation and benefits that are transferred to the employees who do the work. Contract negotiations in both sectors are remarkably similar.


The strategy and tactics of public and private sector unions are different. 


Public sector unions have political leverage that private sector employees cannot usually avail themselves. That political leverage is mercurial and often overestimated by union foes. Conversely, in 39 states, private sector unions possess the right of work stoppages that public sector unions do not. 


However, the effectiveness of work stoppages is diminished to the point of being rarely employed as an effective tactic according to data at the BLS.


For public sector unions, employees are at the caprices of unpredictable political winds. Disingenuous political figures can seek favor with voters by scapegoating public sector union employees for the misdeeds of management.


A prevailing myth perpetuated by anti-public sector union forces is that public sector union employees enjoy a significant advantages in wages, salaries and benefits.


The facts are quite different. In numerous studies by non-profit, non-partisan organizations, it is clear that public sector union employees receive less in compensation than private sector union members. In recent years, pensions and health care benefits, once thought to be advantageous in the public sector, have been whittled down by public sector management in contract negotiations.


It is hypocritical to deny public sector unions the same protections that private union employees have won. Both unions are essential to protect the interests of their employees.


Job Losses


These interests cannot be abstracted from the larger economy.


The National Employment Law Project released a report in April 2014. The data showed the precipitous decline of good paying jobs after the recession.


Lower wage industries accounted for 22 percent of recession losses, but 44 percent of recovery growth.


Middle wage industries accounted for 37 percent of recession losses, but only 26 percent of recovery growth.


High wage industries accounted for 41 percent of recession losses, and only 30 percent of recovery growth.


Presently, there are nearly two million fewer jobs in middle and high wage industries than there were before the Great Recession. Conversely there are 1.85 million more jobs in lower wage industries. Obtaining one of the lower paid jobs usually without benefits is cold comfort for those who once were able to provide for their families.


Gallup, Inc. a polling company, also tracked a U-6 unemployment rate in 2016. Gallup included both “short term” and “long term” employees that no longer seek work due to discouragement. Gallup’s U-6 unemployment rate was 14.4 percent down from 15.5 percent in January 2015. These are startling numbers reflecting a structural employment problem.


The Hamilton Project is a policy organization dedicated to achieving economic justice. They reported in 2014 that the economy must add 208,000 jobs a month just to replace the losses in the Great Recession.


Additionally, the Hamilton Project examined the “jobs gap,” which is the number of jobs that the U.S. economy needs to create in order to return to pre-recession employment levels. It included the people who enter the potential labor force each month. As of October 2016, our nation confronted a jobs gap of 0.9 million jobs.


The new economic paradigm in our nation is not only losing sustainable jobs. It is the creating low wage and salary jobs with diminished or no benefits.

Public Sector Job Losses


The public sector has also not fared well in job losses. According to the BLS in 2013, 719,000 federal, state and local government jobs have been cut since 2009.


Black employees have suffered the most losses in the public sector. The University of Washington Sociology Department released a report in August 2015. It reported that blacks comprised 20 percent of government employees. This compares to whites with 14 percent and Latinos with 10 percent of the public sector workforce.


The study concluded that between 2003 and 2013, black employees, particularly black women, were more likely than whites or Latinos to lose their public sector jobs. The steeper rates of black employment losses occurred even after controlling for education, job type, skills and other factors.


Income Growth Distortions


America is presented as nation of opportunity; it is where conscientious work and playing by the rules will provide working families an adequate standard of living. That myth has been demolished by recent data on income growth.


Public and private sector union members’ interests are the same interests of all working people. Ours is an economy that cannot deliver what it is supposed to. It is characterized by chronic instability and mind numbing inequality.  It has not recovered from the Great Recession which officially occurred from December 2007 to June 2009. 


Economist Colin Gordon released a report in October 2013 for the EPI.


The data covered income growth for the years 1979-2012.  The conclusions are as follows:


  • The top 1/100th of 1% received 685.1%.
  • The top 1/10th of 1% percent received 383.5%.
  • The top 1% received 184.9%.


Adequate Living Standard


The EPI also created a family budget calculator. The data is from 2015.


The result is a budget that will allow families to live not at or just above poverty, but “adequately.”


Data of the “adequate” income required for a family of four is troubling. It was taken from a representative sample of 15 major metropolitan areas and the corresponding rural areas from Hawaii to Florida.


The mean amount required in the sample for the major metropolitan areas was $78,048.


The mean amount in the corresponding rural areas was $70,728.


In May 2015, the Federal Reserve Board released a report with another perplexing conclusion:


Forty-Seven percent of Americans could not pay for an unexpected $400 expense through savings or credit cards, without selling something or borrowing money.



Historically, our nation has both secular and spiritual organizations that advocate for the interests of working people chronically excluded from the economy.


Public sector unions must now form audacious, coalitions and alliances with private sector unions, and those secular and spiritual organizations.


They must organize against the relentless attacks of the tiny economic demographic that wields power without conscience.


Polls suggest that the vapid tropes of scapegoating “big government,” immigrants, minorities, and the “greed’ of public sector union are losing traction even as the present administration continues its scapegoating. A different political construct is forming and public sector unions and private sector unions must seize this opportunity to shake off any cobwebs of past follies. Empowering employees to participate is the only viable option. Otherwise, unions will become increasingly irrelevant and obsolete.


The last election threw us into a post facts era. We have seen a frightening trend of toxic fake news, fact checking repudiation, and the venom of social media with bogus accounts.


Hardworking Americans are feeling hopeless and helpless, not knowing who to believe or what. Their anger at being excluded from the economy for the last 40 years was underestimated in the last election. It explained largely the surreal phenomenon of a President Donald Trump.


Media that disperses misinformation must be challenged by vigorous research and clear, accessible presentations. Unions must work smarter and harder.


The dots must be connected for all working people by those with the time and resources. This dreadful national polarization must be addressed as our nation enters a somber and dangerous time.


Public and private sector unions have the political and social skills to lead this old struggle with new participants. An economic wasteland is not that far away for all working people. The one percent is still the one percent. There is nothing new about their agenda.


[Bruce T. Boccardy is the former president, Massachusetts Service Employees International  Local 888, Public Sector Division, former labor representative, Massachusetts Joint Labor-Management Committee, former consultant  National Association of Government Employees.]