Public Sector Unions Confront Attacks

labor-3jpgIn June 2014, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that home health aides were not required to pay their “fair share” or agency fees in the public sector. This was the first successful attack on the agency fee law by so-called Right to Work organizations.

In January 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the landmark case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. With a four-four tie, due to the passing on of Antonin Scalia, the court affirmed a lower court ruling that denied the case’s challenge to the agency fee requirement.

That law was established in 1977 with the precedent Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. It allows employees who did not belong to the union to pay only for the representation they receive from the union. They are not compelled to contribute to any political or social views of the union.

However, it allows “free riders” or “free loaders” to benefit from union representation with some participation restrictions. The Friedrichs case was more than an indirect financial attack against unions. To be sure, the case was a direct attack on the right of public sector unions to exist. If the agency fee statute is abolished, many public sector unions would face grave financial consequences. Many public sector unions would collapse.

This is partially a result of sizable numbers of union members being relentlessly indoctrinated by anti-union propaganda. They are led to believe that the savings on full dues payments would significantly benefit their pocketbooks. What they fail to consider is that without a collective bargaining agreement, they would be crushed by management with regard to wages, salaries, and benefits. Moreover, they would lose their voice on other important workplace issues.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is the group of pettifoggers working for the National Right to Work Committee. It is funding several cases on behalf of anti-union members challenging the agency fee requirement throughout the country.

labor 1jpgThere are at least five cases weaving their way to the Supreme Court which will be heard next year. The most recent one was filed on November 30, 2016 as Janus v. AFSCME. This case may be more compelling than Friedrichs or the other five cases that are headed toward the Supreme Court in 2017. The National Right to Work Committee is one of several groups representing the worst excesses of corporate greed. They plot with the unspoken purpose of decimating employee rights and filling corporate pockets. Other groups are the American Legislative Exchange Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These groups are shamelessly funded by the some of the wealthiest members of the economic elites in the country, including the Koch brothers.

The most prominent case to be headed to the Supreme Court 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 on prior decisions of that Railway Labor Act. If the case is successful, opponents of the agency fee law believe that it would also impact Abood, in effect overturning it. With the new administration, a vacancy on the Supreme Court will be appointed by President-elect Trump. It is a certainty that the vacancy will be filled by a person hostile to unions. It is delusional to expect any conciliation from the Trump administration toward union employees or non-union employees. If anything, they will double down on breaking the remaining union movement.

Despite these disgraceful attacks, public sector unions remain the last sizable union organization to protect the interests of public sector employees and, by extension, the interests of all working people.

As private unions’ numbers dwindle and the non-union component of the workforce increases, the future of all working people is in the balance.

Private sector union membership has dramatically declined in the last 30 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in 2015 private sector union membership fell to under an anemic seven percent. Public sector workers had a union membership rate of just over 35 percent.

Public Sector Unions Foundation

In the last 30 years since President Ronald Reagan steamrolled the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union, the political ideology of the wealthiest group in our society has been to destroy the union movement. This is not a well-kept secret.

Public sector unions have endured the same tired rhetoric from the corporate media minions of the one percent of the wealthiest and powerful of corporate Americans. It is rhetoric replete with myths about public sector unions.

This misinformation includes myths of overpaid, underworked, public sector union employees smirking as they retire with excessive pensions. These fanciful assertions have been disproven, demolished, and discredited but often remain as accepted truth.

Why do we need public sector unions? Anti-union propaganda has its voices. Michael Bargo Jr—writing in the American Thinker in 2013—presented the main argument opposing the establishment of public sector unions:

“There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that establishes or condones the use of collective bargaining by federal workers. The Founding Fathers did not want a separate elite political class to seize political control of the country, yet that is exactly what has happened since the establishment of public sector unions.”

As with most literalists and originalists who interpret the Constitution, Bargo peddles a duplicitous argument to make his point. He presupposes that the Constitution is a comprehensive historical document addressing every area of our present society. More than a perfunctory reading of the Constitution presents a different reality. Despite the remarkable scope and enlightenment of the Constitution for its time, it does not address many issues.

Among those issues, the Constitution does not mention or specifically address are the right to vote, no taxation without representation, unrestricted free speech, innocent until proven guilty, the right to jury of your peers, and the separation of church and state. Also, the Constitution does not guarantee the right to education.

Conversely, collective bargaining is recognized as a human right in international conventions, constitutions, and courts. Our Constitution addresses the right of collective bargaining in the 13th amendment. The amendment appears to refer only to the issue of slavery. However, according to the Supreme Court in 1911, the purpose of the 13th amendment was not simply to eliminate slavery, but to release one person’s labor from the exploitation of another.

The Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 was the primary statute that declared the right of collective bargaining. This was followed by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Certainly there are also federal statutes that protect the activities of public sector unions. The Civil Service Reform Act, the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment have resulted in various court decisions protecting public sector union employee rights.

Public Sector/Private Sector Symmetry

Public sector union employees are subjected to the same work issues as private sector employees. It is hypocritical to deny them the same protections that private union employees have won. Our nation’s labor history is characterized by patterns of employer abuse absent a union with collective bargaining protection. Employees were routinely underpaid, overworked and dismissed unjustly at the caprices of employers. Their lives were arbitrarily disrupted and sent into financial and personal chaos. Decent work standards that facilitated the growth of middle income folks and a marginally comfortable working class emanated from collective bargaining.

These included the 40-hour workweek, the weekend, vacation time, employer-supported health insurance, pensions, family and medical leave, and basic safety and health protections, and work environment.

Anti-union groups traffic the myth that public sector unions are unnecessary because public sector employees do not really need their interests protected. Public sector unions are portrayed as fundamentally different from their private sector counterparts. They are accused of using their political power to manipulate governments at every level. The public purse is unguarded and must be protected against the rapacious, privileged public sector unions.

Contrived analyses are presented that ostensibly feature the differences in public and private sector unions. The motivation of these journalists, pundits, and academics is transparent. The majority of these writings indirectly advocate for the extinction of public sector unions. This is the strategy of the rich and powerful. Their apologists join in the attacks now that private sector unions have been eviscerated in numbers and diminished in political influence.

These myopic perspectives cannot change a basic fact—the employer/employee relationship in public sector unions is identical to private sector unions.

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 virtually any other component of the work day, week, or year.

While the sources of revenue and profits are different, the motivation of management is the same—to minimize the share of compensation and benefits that is transferred to the employees who do the work. The strategy and tactics of public and private sector unions are also marginally different. Public sector unions have a political leverage that private sector employees cannot avail themselves. That political leverage is mercurial and often overestimated by union foes. Conversely, private sector unions possess the powerful right of work stoppages or strikes that public sector unions do not.

For public sector unions, employees are at the whims of unpredictable political winds. Disingenuous and unscrupulous political figures often curry favor with voters by scapegoating public sector union employees for the failures of management. When in doubt, blame the public sector union employee in the cubicle.

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 acclaimed non-profit, non-partisan organizations, it is indisputable 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

Public sector union members’ interests cannot be separated from the interests of all working people and the context of our economy. This is an economy that cannot deliver what it is supposed to. It’s no secret that our economy has not recovered from the “Great Recession” which officially occurred from December 2007 to June 2009. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) released a report in April 2014. The data showed the precipitous decline of good paying jobs after the “Great Recession.”

Economic Stagnation

  • 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 congealed. 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 prior to the crippling recession.

The public sector has not fared well either. According to the [BB1] BLS in 2013, 719,000 federal, state and local jobs have been cut since 2009. The new economic paradigm in our nation is not only losing sustainable jobs, but a pattern of creating low wage and salary jobs with diminished benefits.

Moreover, the BLS uses a metric identified as U-6. It measures those not seeking work due to frustration, those who work part time, but want full time work as well as the registered unemployed. Unfortunately the data does not include “long term” discouraged employees. Even so in 2011, the BLS reported the U-6 as 18 percent. Today they report it as 9.9 percent.

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

The Hamilton Project, a non-partisan policy organization is dedicated to restoring 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 examines 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 includes 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.

Income Growth

America is presented as nation of opportunity; it is where conscientious work and playing by the rules will provide working families a middle income standard of living. Apparently that myth has been demolished by recent data on income growth. Economist Colin Gordon released a report in October 2013 for the Economic Policy Institute (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%.

The EPI also created a family budget calculator. The basic components measured are housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, other necessities like clothing, personal care expenses, household supplies, reading materials, school supplies, miscellaneous items of necessity and taxes. This data is recorded from the BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey in 2013.

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. Data 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.

Again, the data above illustrates what is required for an “adequate” standard of living. It is does not include routine expenses that many families would encounter such as education or college tuition, vacations, social and recreation events, and dining out. Also forget about that new car, flat screen television, cable television, an Internet provider, cell phone or IPad. “Adequate” to most Americans clearly means deprived. Yet the numbers above required to live “adequately” are not within the grasp of tens of millions of Americans as wages and salaries continue to stagnate. It is clear that millions of voters in our last presidential election were also profoundly concerned with their economic reality. Polls showed that both Senator Bernie Sanders and President-elect Trump drew from shrinking middle and increasing low income people who simply had had enough of the failed fiscal and monetary policies of the past.

Union Democratization

Our nation’s history verbally enshrines the principle of democracy in all of its manifestations. This cherished principle must apply in an appropriate form to all constructs in our society. Social units such as family, community, work and education must be included in the appropriate form in the democratization process.

Public and private sector unions must develop paradigms based on employee participation.

The work construct is one of the most significant aspects of our lives. Typically, employees spend at least eight hours a day, five days a week at work. We owe that particular benefit to the historical gains of private unions.

Public unions contribute to the overall good governance of our nation. Democratizing the workplace insures that employees have a voice in the work process. This participation teaches employees to be better informed of current event issues. Employees can learn the skills necessary and transfer them to more complex political activities in their lives if they choose.

Like all unions, public sector unions focus primarily on strengthening employees’ rights and working conditions, securing fair wages, guaranteeing safety and eliminating corporate abuse of their employees.

 Unions’ Opportunity

Conventional political officials rely on echolalic chatter that puts people to sleep. Only now with conditions worsening for decades has that torpor been replaced by anger, frustration, and hopelessness.

Polls suggest that the vapid tropes of blaming “big government,” the shameful scapegoating of immigrants, and the “greed” of public sector unions are losing traction. 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 dots must be connected. Public sector unions have the political and social skills to lead in this old struggle with new participants. The one percent is still the one percent. There is nothing new about their agenda.

Cecil Roberts, president, United Mine Workers of America addressed the New York Public Employees Federation Health and Safety Conference in March 2011:

  • “America is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Who are the people? . . . We’re the farmers that fed the nation. We’re the firefighters that saved the nation. We’re the police officers who protect the nation. We’re the teachers who taught the nation. We’re the nurses that healed the nation. We’re the construction workers who built the nation. We’re the truck drivers who move the nation. We’re the coal miners that energize the nation. The American labor movement—we are the people.”


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