One of the most distressing elements of the current attacks on public employees is the support given to them by many private-sector workers. The reasons are simple. Many private-sector workers resent that public-sector workers, paid for through their taxes, continue to enjoy job protections, health care, and insurance while workers in the private sector find their jobs, benefits, and pay increasingly precarious. Further, these workers believe that public sector workers, through their unions, have an unfair fix on these privileges: they mobilize to elect the people with whom they have to bargain. Further, those same elected officials, unconcerned with the bottom line—it’s not their money, after all—accede to every union demand. At the same time, even some private-sector union members argue that unions are needed in the private sector, where the profit motive creates too many incentives for employers to exploit them, but are not needed in the public sector, where no such motive exists. Finally, many people believe that public sector unions are responsible for bankrupting states.
Each of these deserves a real response beyond “That’s just what the Koch brothers want you to believe.”
It has now been said many times that while it is true that public-sector workers enjoy pensions and job protections not enjoyed by many private-sector workers, this is not because things have changed dramatically for public employees. Rather, it is because over the last forty years, private employers have kept more of the proceeds from production than they used to keep by making work less secure for workers than it used to be. Real wages have been almost flat since the early 1970s, while union membership declined precipitously, pension plans were changed to financially vulnerable 401(k)s—if they ever existed in the first place—and companies cut back on the proportion of the workers they hired full time. Chalking this up to “the global economy” skirts the many political and judicial decisions that eroded workers’ security. As the National Employment Law Project has documented, the growing low-wage sectors of the economy are particularly bad: here, employer harassment, overtime violations, wage theft, and other exploitative practices are increasingly the norm, and largely unpoliced. More private-sector unions are needed, not fewer public-sector ones.
But public-sector unions are not nearly as strong as they are often imagined to be. Opponents of public employee unions are fond of quoting New York City’s Victor Gotbaum, who claimed in 1975 that unions elect their own bosses. But this was before the New York City fiscal crisis humbled Gotbaum, forcing him to accept tens of thousands of layoffs of his members and to rescue the city by committing union pension funds to buy what were at the time worthless municipal bonds. Then, as now, the withdrawal of federal subsidies to state and local governments was a key component of the crisis, and another was real estate speculation underwritten by Wall Street banks. Then, as now, financial elites and their allies in government tried to use the crisis to undermine hard-won workers’ rights. Since that time, increasing numbers of municipal services have been privatized or put in the hands of unpaid or poorly paid workers in welfare-to-work or corrections programs. New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, for example, has half the number of fulltime workers as it had in the 1970s, but the workforce of about 3,000 employees is supplemented by almost the same number of seasonally hired Job Training Program workers from the welfare rolls, and a smaller number of people working off community service requirements. Job Training Program workers' wages were cut unilaterally by Mayor Bloomberg in 2005, and while they rose last year, they still do not reach the levels at which they were twelve years ago. In addition, private, nonprofit corporations have taken over the management of an increasing number of centrally located parks, such as Central Park and Bryant Park--or even "public benefit corporations" like Hudson River Park Trust, and hired or contracted their own, non-union workforces to clean and maintain the parks. As the city laid off thousands in 1976, then-Mayor Abraham Beame called on people to volunteer to fill the gap. Now, more than 850 full-time equivalent hours of volunteering contributes to parks maintenance, too. In spite of some potential benefits to civic life, this means that overall, thousands of people who might have made a go at a solid working-class life and a career with a job ladder no longer can do that. None of this is evidence of particularly strong public-sector unionism.
Further, we acknowledge all the time that public investment makes private profit-making possible, regardless of the other social benefits that it creates. Clean parks and streets, good public schools, and safe streets improve a city’s business environment because businesses like to locate in areas where their employees want to live, the costs of training workers is partly socialized through public education systems, and industries like tourism, "hospitality," and real estate benefit tremendously. Therefore, there is really no essential difference between public- and private-sector workers in this regard. The difference is only that the former has an indirect relation to profit-making activities, where the latter’s relationship is more direct. Because public-sector unions fight to protect jobs in the public sector, gutting them will only increase the likelihood that public investments are privatized further, leading to lower standards of living among a large section of working people, and to a growing unevenness in public investment toward high-yield areas and away from working- and middle-class areas.
Finally, if public sector unions really were responsible for state fiscal crises, one would expect that the percentage of public workers belonging to a union (or represented by a union) would map nicely onto the size of state budget holes, as measured by the size of projected deficits relative to general funds. It doesn’t. Though highly unionized states like New Jersey are facing budget crises of fairly calamitous proportions, so are nearly union-free states such as Texas and North Carolina. Instead of taking the entire picture into account, opponents of unions regularly cherry-pick their evidence. Further, because many non- or barely unionized states do not have an institutionalized lobby to protect public services, their public services routinely rate poorly next to those in more unionized states.
Ultimately, however, the debates about public-sector unions may be a red herring. As Indiana’s legislature has helped us see by proposing curbs on private-sector union rights, these are broader debates about working people’s ability to join together in free associations to demand better treatment from their employers. This means that people (among whom are my colleagues) who try to draw a clear distinction between public and private employees in the hopes of curbing public-employee rights either willfully ignore their real commonalities in a broader economic system, or are simply shilling for crushing workers' rights altogether.
We should not be divided so easily.