Public Sector Unions

THE REAL REASON FOR THE GROWTH IN PUBLIC SECTOR
UNIONS

Response to an Editorial in the
Moscow-Pullman Daily News
(June 15&16, 1996)

Nick Gier, President

Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO

Professor of Philosophy

University of Idaho


Your editorial against unions shows a lack of understanding about how unions work and why we need them. The rise of unions is a natural extension of representative democracy to the workplace. The union movement is driven by the undeniable logic that workers should be able to protect their interests where they work as well as where they live. Marx was right about one thing: political freedom means nothing without economic freedom.

The Wagner Act of 1935 finally recognized the validity of this argument. This landmark legislation permitted American workers to vote for union representation and it provided for sanctions against employers who prevented this from happening. Unfortunately, the Wagner Act excluded government and agricultural workers.

In the 1970s many states passed legislation allowing public employees to bargain collectively. Since then there has been phenomenal growth in public sector unions. Three-quarters of all school teachers are members of either the National Education Association (NEA) or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). These two unions have also organized over 40% of the professors at state colleges and universities. This figure would be higher if more states (like Idaho) allowed collective bargaining in higher education.

Your editorial is correct in citing bad management as a reason for public union growth, but the more basic fact is that public employees now have laws that allow representative democracy where they work. (Back in 1974 I wrote to then UI President Hartung requesting an collective bargaining election. He cordially declined the offer and that was the end of the matter.) There is a basic imbalance of power in the workplace, and until laws like the Wagner Act pacified the situation, labor relations in this country were nasty and violent. American workers were on the losing end every time.

You claim that it is not right that taxpayers should pay for union representation through higher wages and contracts. Apart from the outrageous implication that public employees don’t deserve decent pay raises, this argument overlooks the hidden pay-off from the American union movement. Today most American workers–a very large percentage not unionized–enjoy retirement and health benefits that came into being because of union negotiations in the past. In the 1930s workers not only paid their dues for these benefits, but some of them also gave their lives on the picket lines. Massive freeloading on American unions–for shame!

Your theory that bad management is the sole determination of public union growth flies in the face of the fact that private sector managers are just as inept. They have also developed slick anti-union campaigns that have been very successful. You share their incredible theory that unions are like a virus that invades the body of the company. The union is always depicted as an alien force that preys on poor workers. Unions of course are just ordinary people who form state and national organizations just like Republicans do. I am sure that our local Republicans would be just as insulted as union members are if it was said that their activities were directed by someone in Washington.

Your view that unions would disappear if employers just treated their workers decently is a very paternalistic view. Even under the most ideal management conditions, the employees are the only ones who know what their interests are. That is why the great American unions will continue to exist given good management or bad.

Rather than seeing unions as a virus that we should vaccinize against, we should see them as a legitimate aspect of our democratic tradition. European workers have always recognized this fact and have unionized in great numbers. Just as it is a travesty that so few Americans actually vote, it is equally scandalous that so many decline to exercise their democratic rights where they work. The real disease here is not unions but a lack of commitment to representative government.