ELIZABETH McKILLEN

Defending public-sector unions

Posted March 15, 2011, at 9:14 p.m.
Last modified March 17, 2011, at 11:03 a.m.

In his Feb. 24 column in the BDN on the protests in Madison, Wis., “Workers can choose life sans union,” George Will portrays the protesters as a privileged group of white-collar, “graying” baby boomers who seek to maintain lavish benefit packages for themselves at the expense of more poorly paid private-sector workers who foot the tax bills. He further implies that public-sector workers do not need collective bargaining, since they are protected from arbitrary firing and discipline by civil service laws dating back at least a century. Wills’ article reveals a shocking ignorance of public-sector unions and their history.

Although public-sector unionists are often stereotyped as white-collar bureaucrats, they include a broad cross-section of the American work force that ranges from firefighters to police, teachers, nurses, secretaries, garbage collectors and municipal, state and federal administrators.

The first civil service laws, created at the federal level in the 1880s, and at the state levels in the early 20th century, were designed to eliminate the “spoils system,” which awarded government jobs based on political patronage. To that end, they included provisions establishing a merit system for hiring and promotion, and clauses protecting government employees from being fired for political reasons, but little else. For example, in many states it remained legal to fire women teachers who married until at least the 1950s.

Far from constituting a privileged sector of the work force, public-sector employees often labored for wages that were lower than in the private sector and under conditions that were at least as degrading.

Yet as labor historians such as Marjorie Murphy, Joseph Slater, Francis Ryan and John Lyons have demonstrated, public-sector unionism was at first inhibited by the notion that government employees should be public servants and therefore “selfless.” This was especially true of female-dominated professions such as teaching and nursing, where evaluations of job performance were based in part on reigning ideas about proper female behavior, and female strikers were characterized as unwomanly Amazons. Yet early union activists countered that giving more power to government workers, and improving the conditions under which they labored, would only increase their ability to serve their constituencies.

Chicago teachers, for example, organized in the early 20th century not only to improve their wages and benefits, but to gain more control over the curriculum as well as sanitation practices in the schools that led to frequent outbreaks of typhoid. Boston policemen struck in 1919 in part because they had not received a significant pay raise in 20 years, but also because overwork hindered their ability to protect the city. Unfortunately, the strike was brutally suppressed by National Guardsmen, who killed nine and injured 23 in their efforts to restore law and order.

Public-sector unions remained weak through the 1930s, when private-sector unions experienced a resurgence that helped to drive New Deal reforms culminating in the Wagner National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which guaranteed private-sector unions the right to collective bargaining.  Public-sector workers, however, were not protected by the new law.

But in the late 1950s and early 1960s strong agitation by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Wisconsin led to the passage of the first state statutes legalizing collective bargaining by public-sector employees. Other states soon followed suit, and in the late 1960s, a series of court cases finally established that public-sector employees, like their private counterparts, could not be fired for joining a union.

Increased legal protections for public-sector workers helped to drive a wave of union organizing  among teachers, nurses and government service workers even as union membership in the private sector declined. Significantly, these public-sector unions, which included large numbers of women and African-Americans, often championed civil rights legislation as well as a host of social reform goals. By 1993, about 40 percent of union members were in the public sector.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that in 2010 unionized workers in both the private and public sectors enjoyed significantly higher weekly earnings than their nonunionized counterparts. The historical lesson would therefore seem to be that both public- and private-sector workers need strong unions to promote their interests and to guarantee themselves a democratic voice in determining the conditions under which they labor.

Elizabeth McKillen is a professor of history at the University of Maine.

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