A Defense of Public Sector Unionism - Part the First

Note: this is a cross-post from The Realignment Project.



There is something strange about the Democratic Party’s love of attacking parts of its own coalition. Every political party has divisions inside it, but disagreements between factions and interest groups are usually solved through negotiation, power-sharing, and the like. The Democratic Party is highly unusual in the level of existential opposition it’s willing to engage in – the infamous “Sister Soljah” moment, the bitterness of the Rainbow Coalition vs. New Democrat conflict that arguably lasted well into 2008, and so on.

However, there’s nothing quite as strange as the loathing of certain parts of the Democratic Party for the very existence of public sector unions.

Progressives Against Public Sector Unions:

Because of the Democratic Party’s reliance on the American labor movement for political organization (especially when it comes to field campaigns) and financial contributions, hostility toward public sector unions within the Democratic Party coalition is usually kept somewhat below the radar.

However, we begin to see this hostility come out among self-described progressives, especially well-educated, professional, middle class progressives, when it comes to education debates over testing (think self-proclaimed progressive blogger Mickey Kaus) and its use in deciding pay and termination issues, and when public sector budgets get tight (the much-more-pro-union-than-Kaus Matt Yglesias on public pensions). That’s when the abstract approval of the right to unionize begins to fade away, and we begin to see the same kinds of rhetoric that the right uses to demonize unions emerge – public sector unions protect inefficient workers and fight changes to bureaucratic red tape, public sector employees are too costly, and so on.

What differentiates this “progressive” anti-public-sector-unionism from conservative variations is the extent to which it relies on a deep strain of New England-style civic republicanism that’s been a part of the left since before the Progressive Era. Beginning in the 1870s, the first self-proclaimed liberals both within the Democratic and Republican Parties (who shared a common white, Protestant, university-educated middle class background) began to fight to transform city government away from patronage-driven machines and ran straight into the problem of unions – albeit more in the realm of “common carriers” and workers on public contracts.

A very influential school of progressives were deeply inspired by the lure of technology and organizational innovation, and took the corporation as their ideal form of an efficient, modern institution. The turn to the city-manager model of city government, the introduction of civil service tests to increase the quality of public sector workers by attracting “the best men,”  and the use of Taylorite time and motion studies in the public sector were all inspired by the vision of the government as a corporation. A more efficient government, run by educated elites and guided by expertise and (social) scientific analysis, would wash away the inefficient ways of party politics and provide a solution to the problems of modernity.

At the same time that early liberals and “efficiency” progressives pushed for the reconstruction of government along corporate lines, these reformers also tapped into the ideals of republicanism, which holds that the people are sovereign, and that republican government must always be on the lookout for corruption from within the government that might usurp popular control. As opposed to classical liberal ideology, which saw the government as a natural locus for competition and conflict, civil republicans believed that the government should embody the common good – and in order for that to happen, government needed to be run by “public servants” who refrained from engagement in politics, and who sacrificed the financial rewards of the private sector for a higher vocation. In this, classical republican beliefs that public officials should be “disinterested” and only concerned with the common good transferred over to public sector workers.

When combined with the “efficiency” reformers’ belief that civil service tests and an emphasis on formal qualifications would mean a government by “the best men,” the two strains of thought were easy to merge. Efficiency reformers might see a prevailing wage on city contracts as an inefficient deviation from the market wage and republican reformers might see the same as a corrupt bargain crooked politicians angling for votes and politically connected unions looking to skim from the public treasury, but they both agreed on the core issue.

In this vision, public sector unions are a dangerous threat. To begin with, many republicanist Progressives were never happy with the idea of independent trade unions – as a “class interest,” they potentially threatened the unity of the sovereign people around the common good. Progressives who were strongly influenced by liberal individualism were motivated by a desire to protect the individual, “the little guy,” from the “curse of bigness” – whether it be Big Business or Big Political Machines (and perhaps in the future Big Labor) – saw unions as focused on the group instead of the individual, on collective action over individual deliberation. “Efficiency” reformers saw public sector unions as institutions that would assert the agency of public employees against public managers, thus threatening the hierarchical chain of command deemed necessary for efficient operation, moving managers from the shining ideal of scientific planning to the messy reality of conflict and negotiation. Most of all, as organized participants in local politics, public sector unions potentially threatened to create a voting bloc that could form a common cause with unruly working class elements and outvote the “better elements” of society.

For their part, and in a sense of fairness, public sector unions didn’t and don’t trust “efficiency” progressives that much either. In their eyes, the college-educated professionals who call on the unions to sacrifice for the common good are part of the same class as the bosses who would like nothing better than to bust their unions outright, especially when these self-proclaimed progressives start using the same anti-union rhetoric. When discussing sweeping changes to how workers get hired and fired, paid and promoted, and especially changes to the relative power of workers and management, there’s neither incentive nor basis for trust that the interests of workers will be safe in the hands of “efficiency” progressives.

Why Public Sector Unions:

In the face of this conflict, it’s important to remember why public sector unions exist and why progressives should support them.

First, labor rights are universal. The right to organize flows from the right of all citizens to assemble and associate, and is recognized by the U.N under Article 23 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. This same right should hold whether one is working for the government or for a private employer – this becomes especially obvious when you compare workers in identical professions. A sanitation worker who works for the City Sanitation Department has to do the same work under the same conditions as a sanitation worker who works for City Sanitation Services, Inc. and should have the same rights to pursue their interests.

Even a cursory examination of labor history - the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker’s strike where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last days, for example – shows that public sector employers can be just as bad as private sector employers when it comes to wages and benefits, working conditions, safety standards, and hostility to their workers and to unions (more on this in future segments). That the public sector should be a better employer because its workers are also citizens  who the public sector is supposed to serve and who have rights the public sector is supposed to respect (such that unions are unnecessary, goes the theory) does not mean that in reality it will be.  Especially in the growing gray-area of privatized public services and public contractors, there literally is no difference between the two – if you have a boss, you need a union.

The ideal of the vocation, that public sector workers should be motivated by a higher mission, simply isn’t appropriate to the modern world of work. It’s a relic of medieval religion, the original “vocare” to teach or heal coming from God, and it ultimately means that public sector workers should embrace selfless denial – because it’s good for the rest of us. At the end of the day, public sector workers aren’t priests (by the way, public sector workers don’t get free housing, food and clothing, education, health care, and retirement the way that priests, monks, and nuns do).

Second, public sector unions are a natural ally of the state.  Contrary to Mickey Kaus (“Unions are what make affirmative government unpalatable”), the truth is that public sector unions are one of the few institutions that have a vested interest in seeing that either the welfare state (health care, education, social services, etc.) or the regulatory state (SEC, FDA, EPA, etc.) works.

In a sense, this grows from the natural inclination of all unions. As I’ve pointed out in the past, private sector unions historically have been proponents of state-provided health care and similar benefits because they mean that workers are less dependent on their employers for economic security and are thus freer to assert their rights and confront their employers. (It would also mean that unions could focus on issues of industrial democracy and wages, rather than get bogged down in the minutiae of actuarial tables) At the same time, given the historic imbalance of power between unions and corporate employers, unions tend to view public regulatory authority as beneficial to their cause – when corporations refuse to negotiate over workplace safety issues and the union isn’t strong enough on its own to force a resolution, workers can bring in OSHA or the FDA or the EPA or the Labor Department either as advocates or adjudicators.

The “movement culture” of unions, built up over centuries of struggle, is also a potent wellspring of progressive politics. Whether a union’s origins lie with socialism, communism, catholic social thought, “labor republicanism,” the experience of belonging to a trade union makes workers more likely to support other progressive movements and to vote in more progressive ways. In 2008, for example, seniors voted for McCain by 8% but seniors who were union members voted for Obama by 46%; non-college whites voted for McCain by 18%, non-college white union members voted for Obama by 23% points. This same pattern has been true in the U.S ever since the New Deal – even in close elections, even in Republican landslides, unions are loyal supporters of the Democratic Party, and of liberal and progressive Democrats especially.

In another sense, public sector unions have another incentive to be progressive allies – the more services the state provides and the more strictly it regulates, the more jobs there are for public sector workers; hence, public sector unions are one of the only segments of society that don’t have a problem with raising taxes (a proposition that anti-public-sector-union conservatives readily agree with). At the same time, it’s important for public sector unions that the public sector be seen as effective and competent: privatization hurts public sector unions, due to the extreme difficulty of organizing in the private sector; likewise, anything that might provide public support to conservatives, who combine anti-tax/pro-cut politics with anti-union politics, also hurts them.

This is why when the modern conservative movement began its push against the New Deal in the late 1940s, it started with Taft-Hartley, not an attack on Social Security. The strategy then, as now is simple: the weaker unions are, the fewer votes there are for progressive candidates and causes, and the weaker the Democratic Party is.

Third, the public sector should be a yardstick for the private labor market.  As I’ve discussed in the past, one of the subtler powers of the government is that it can set the “moral plane of competition” in a market, deciding that child labor or carcinogenic materials in food is unacceptable behavior. While this usually takes the form of direct regulation – thou shalt not – it can also take the form of “yardsticking,” in which a public utility is set up, both to provide consumers with an alternative to private monopolies, but also to give regulators an idea about what the fair market rate actually is for a given product – allowing them to shine a spotlight on monopolistic practices.

In a way, the public sector has been a yardstick for the private sector ever since the 1960s. It’s a heavily unionized industry (37.4% compared to 7.2%) – which means that workers can’t be exploited. As private employers have rushed to jettison health care plans and change defined benefit plans (in which the employer agrees to a basic pension) to defined contribution plans (in which the employer may or may not match an employee’s 401k or the like), public sector workers have kept theirs – and are therefore protected against economic risks.


In the final analysis, progressive engagement with public sector unions has the strange potential to bring out either the best or worst in the progressive movement and its elected leaders. On the “worst” side, public sector unions can bring out the worst kind of soulless technocrat-ism and authoritarian elitism in progressives, and the way in which arguments about the “common good” can be mobilized by the powers that be to crush dissent and hide exploitation. On the “best” side: progressivism has historically wrestled with the accusation that it’s nothing more than middle-class reform-ism whose ambitions run no further than making capitalism even more efficient, despite its genuine commitment to fighting the evils of industrial (and now post-industrial) capitalism on behalf of the beloved community. By continuing its commitment to unionized public sector workers – even when it’s politically costly – progressivism can stake a claim to honesty of purpose.




I fixed your video

then, folks, EP is an economics blog, not a union site per say.

this post is highly political, so how about focusing in on the complaints being presented and what is the issue with the pensions.

My only thought was gee I wish I had one of those public pensions, because most of America is screwed yet the public sector seems to have kept their benefits (at least in comparison to the private sector).

Again, the focus of EP is economics, so what's the economics of these arguments that are going on?

Remember, this site is not a Democratic site. It is also not a "Progressive" site per say. It is non-partisan and it is labeled Populist to distinguish it from jumping on various policies that are more political than based in sound economics, cause/effect, results. I think about the only thing we have in common on that score is a heavy focus on the national economic interest and the U.S. work force health, interests, so we are focused on how policy affects the every man/woman and the middle class instead of what is good for Wall Street or MNCs and so forth.

So, if there is a motto on EP it's probably stop screwing the little guy, the average American, the working stiff and a belief that really doesn't help the national economy or America to do such things.

The average guy is about to get

killed by the coming unfunded define benefit plans of government workers.

How true Robert, "My only thought was gee I wish I had one of those public pensions".

There is a guy I know that retired last year at 105% of salary. How can that be?

The majority are funding those lucky few. They get more capital the average guy gets less capital

Watch out for part 2

Here's the thing: when you look at the numbers, the guy you know is a statistical blip.

Most public sector workers get a modest pension.

And the question is - shouldn't everyone have a decent pension?


I'm really not very good with html and the like.

The pensions stuff I've researched in great detail, and that's where the econ comes in (I do an analysis of public vs. private sector wages and benefits) - in part 2. Sorry, otherwise the piece gets waay too long.

In this section, I think the political economy comes in the concept of the yardstick. Ultimately, the question is why our response is to say "gee I wish I had one of those public pensions" instead of "I'm going to organize to get a decent pension!" or "Let's organize politically to make Social Security livable!"

I get the populist thing - this is just my own perspective. I see myself as both a populist and a progressive (and a lot of the better elements of big-P Progressivism came out of big-P Populism).

right, but that said

the idea of the site is to get the genera public to look at the actual numbers, the theory, the statistics instead of rhetoric and vague generalities. It is content vs. whatever the label is on the can. It is specifics vs. descriptions.

So, what is the issue with the pensions and as far as teachers go, I have no idea, I just know it's quite insane that working STEM who lost their jobs are not immediately hired, period, absolute, as teachers when they are the ones who really do know STEM and thus could actually teach it. That's it from me on this stuff.

On embedding youtubes, it really is a copy/paste. You just copy the embedding code in the little box, you might set the width (this site is 525 max) or size of the video screen and then paste.

If you edit your post you'll see what I mean. You do quite well with HTML, and honestly embedding youtubes (as long as the site itself supports it, which this one does), is way easier than you think.

Fair enough

I'll rush through putting out part 2 so we can get more of the econ meat.

No Competitive Force at the Table

The only problem I have with public sector unions is (and these arguments are relative to the power of local unions so my problem is with unions I am familiar with in RI)that when they negotiate there is no competition at the table to hold them in check.

In my state they are working on bills to make teacher contracts perpetual so that in a down economy all they have to do is not agree to a contract and the original one would stay in force. In a good economy they point to how well everyone is doing and get great contracts the same reasoning should apply in bad times but in bad times its all about the children. They do not mention that 90% of the cost of public education in unionized states goes directly to labor costs.

When Verizon sits down at the table with their unions the unions must take into account the competition and the economic environment and they do. I use them as an example because as a service provider they are not subject to over seas competition. If those unions do not take those factors into consideration and draw a hard line they risk the real chance that the company will go under. That's a proven historically. When a public union draws a hard line taxes go up. People that are tight on money right now and out of work are getting tax increases they can't afford in large part so that the public sector does not have to feel the weight of this economy - any of it. And some people are losing their homes so that 100% or close to 100% employment can be maintained in the public sector.

Just to note though that companies like Verizon used to buy all their equipment from US manufacturers and then from US and Canada and now none of it is made here or there.

No one in the private sector can retire at near full pay with a cola on their private pension (who gets a defined benefit plan these days anymore anyway?) after just 20 or so years on the job. That's the case here.

I know of no one in the private sector that can get layoffs over turned either but judges regularly over turn public sector layoffs so there is a job security there that does not exist in the private sector. That used to have a cost associated with it in the form of lower pay and benefits now they have both advantages.

There are literally dozens of examples where the private sector employee is held to higher standards works more for the same money and benefits and has less job security. I am not talking about the finance industry here either when I speak of the private sector I mean working America.

Federal Pay Ahead of Private Industry

Wait until part 2

That difference is actually a statistical mirage, caused by WAIT UNTIL PART 2.

request for details

I've read that K12 administrators are busy padding with more administration (same with higher education and it's worse)m pulling 6 figures and bonuses, all the while laying off teachers and so on.

On the other hand, if I had a kid these days I wouldn't be caught dead putting them into public school. God, what a bureaucratic, rule insane, nightmare. Just the fact they teach math on some absurd horizontal equation because "that's how people read" or some crap is insane to me. Math is in columns because it's easier to understand that way when calculating. Horizontal math, this is what happens when one has too many PhDs claiming how the "brain processes information", instead of what is tried and true.

You've hit on a key issue

It's what happens within the hierarchical structure that matters.

And as for public schools, it depends a lot on the socioeconomic makeup of the area; I went for a year to an inner-city public school for kindergarten (and yanked out the next year) - the principal was a violent drunk who sold drugs to the kids (prescription pills). I went to a suburban public school for junior and high school in an affluent neighborhood, and we had PhDs for teachers and elective courses in Neurobiology.

I went to an affluent high school

We had 3 teachers engaging in male to male sex abuses (sleeping with the teenage boys in some seriously weird abusive, power play stuff) and a few more sleeping with the girls.

I'm not going to pretend I know what I'm talking about with teaching/education in K-12.


That's fucked up.


I never thought of that influencing how I perceive K12 until now. My attitude is to just get through it and out as fast as possible and all real learning goes on in college.

That said, from what I can tell, the opportunities for Americans in higher education are "squeeze city". It should be anyone can get in, while very few can get out, i.e. the mastery bar is on high.

But it seems the game now is more just to even get into higher education generally, never mind the official elite universities.

Rejection rates of 80% routinely and seems like none are below 50%, it is denying opportunity to Americans straight out of the gate and what is that about?

If someone can ace Physics or whatever, why are they not even allowed to try?

Robert Oak's Prejudice Against Public Schools

Robert Oak said, "...if I had a kid these days I wouldn't be caught dead putting them (sic) in public school." Granted, more than a few public schools are horrible, and in a number of ways. But Oak's over-generalization ignores the amazing variety in the quality of public schools, from great to very bad, not only from city to city but also within most large cities. A discussion of the reasons for this variety would be quite long and also off-topic on EP, but let me give one example of excellence in public education in rebuttal to Oak: There is a public school in Pasadena, grades 6-12, to which a number of Ph.D's who work at JPL nearby have chosen to send all of their children. This says a lot.

Ray Joiner

I Await Part 2

Please address some of the other things like defined benefit plans that do not exist and early retirements, double dipping etc etc etc.

I believe there is more than a statistical mirage here and some of the biggest differences are not in stats but in the give away contracts that are no longer affordable.

As my job earning and stability is affected by the economy theirs is instead buttressed by tax dollars to maintain public sector employment.

Every penny of a private sector workers tax dollars goes towards government services and not all of that comes back to them. Every penny of a public sector workers tax dollars comes directly from tax dollars so all of that comes back to them and much more.

At some point there has to be a discussion of value.

Private sector workers are buying a product and they have no control over its cost, value or need. Its all mandated by contracts and laws and some of those are enacted by people with clear conflicts of interest. Here we have a part time legislature so we have union workers and reps who are also pushing and voting for not pro union laws but anti taxpayer laws.

Thankfully the economy is waking people up to the nature of some of these backroom deals and things will change in the near future somewhat.

I am not anti union but public unions face no competition and that is the biggest issue. Deal with that effectively and I'll be a public union advocate. When teaching jobs start to be sent to India I will find much compassion in my heart for that profession. Till then their 180 4 hour days, high wages, platinum benefit contracts, 20 sick days and early retirements will make me laugh when I hear how 'hard' they work and how its 'all for the children'.

That said again I am open to your part 2.


Don't forget that a public sector worker's wages also flow out to the private sector worker in the form of consumption - and that the private sector worker's wages come entirely through consumption.

There are ways to do competition within a union context, more on that later.

I will say, however, that part-time legislatures are an anti-populist idea. They mean that only affluent people can afford to become politicians, and discourage political aspirations among the poor and working class.

Where did you get these facts, Jim Donahue?

1. 20 sick days? I had 10 during my high school teaching career in the Pasadena public schools.
2. 4 hour days? I taught for five hours a day, and when you add preparation, grading papers, etc., it was an 8 hour day on average.
3. Platinum benefit contracts? (This one will vary from school district to school district). In 34 years, I never had fully paid medical - there was always a payroll deduction for part of it.
4. Early retirements? Teachers taking early retirement pay for it by receiving smaller pensions. In California, teachers generally need to be about 61 and a half to get a decent pension.
I am not complaining about any of this. Rather, I am correcting some gross exaggerations.

Ray Joiner

Part 2 as promised

Since Part 1's still on the front-oage, didn't want to hog it up:

Part 2 of In Defense of Public Sector Unionism. (with numbers!)