Should Liberals Back Public Employee Unions?

AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart

Hundreds of labor union members and supporters gather for a rally to protest the collective bargaining measures of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's administration at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin, Thursday, August 25, 2011. 

The Supreme Court's 4-4 deadlock in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Tuesday delivered a high-profile win to the labor movement. The deadlock lets stand a lower court ruling that permits unions to charge fees to both members and non-members. Last year, Sam and Jake Rosenfeld examined what's at stake in the ongoing battle over labor unions for the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine.

Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences
By Daniel DiSalvo
304 pp. Oxford University Press $27.95
Bring Back the Bureaucrats: Why More Federal Workers Will Lead to Better (and Smaller!) Government
By John J. DiIulio, Jr. 
184 pp. Templeton Press $9.07

Earlier this year, Wisconsin Governor and GOP presidential aspirant Scott Walker answered a question about how he’d handle the Islamic State with the assurance that “if I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.” Many people ridiculed Walker’s equation of Islamist warriors with American supporters of public employees’ collective-bargaining rights. But two days later he confirmed how deadly serious he is about fighting public-sector unions when he declared that “the most significant foreign-policy decision” of his lifetime was Ronald Reagan’s 1981 replacement of striking air traffic controllers.

Like Walker, many on the right believe public-sector unions are an insidious force that should be eliminated. In contrast, liberals have often sounded ambivalent and uneasy about unions representing public employees. As organized labor’s share of the private sector continues to decline—down to 7 percent in 2014, compared with 36 percent of government workers—the public sector has become ever more central to the labor movement. And with political conflict in coming decades sure to focus on the size and scope of government, liberals need to grapple with questions about labor organization and the modern civil service.

Public-employee unions are also likely to become a subject of constitutional controversy in the next year, when the Supreme Court is expected to take up a case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could deal the unions a significant setback. Under existing precedents, unions can collect “fair share” fees for bargaining representation and contract administration from public employees who aren’t union members. The rationale is that non-members could otherwise free-ride on the backs of their fellow workers, who pay the costs of union representation. Led by Justice Samuel Alito, the conservative majority on the Court may well strike down fair-share fees, creating an incentive for workers to abandon unions.

Two very different books—both by scholars on the center-right—provide the occasion to consider the role of public employees and their unions. Government Against Itself, by political scientist Daniel DiSalvo of City College and the Manhattan Institute, is an earnestly written, sober, and unrelenting attack on government unionism. Bring Back the Bureaucrats by John DiIulio, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, is a brisk, lively polemic that surprisingly calls, on conservative grounds, for an enormous increase in the federal civil service.

DiSalvo’s explicit intent is to win over liberals in the battle against what he sees as noxious public-employee unions as opposed to their worthy and defensible private-sector counterparts. DiSalvo’s own good faith need not be questioned for a liberal reader to chafe a bit at the three-card monte game such an argument conjures up. Now that four decades of relentless assaults have succeeded in rendering the private-sector labor movement a shrunken husk of its former self, conservatives are free to extoll that movement in the effort to crush public--employee unions.

At the heart of DiSalvo’s analysis is a contrast between “two worlds of work,” with “cutthroat competition and increasing inequality” defining the private sector and “middle-class security and greater egalitarianism” defining the public sector. Equity, DiSalvo argues, demands that such imbalances be redressed, and his answer is to make public-sector work more like work in the private sector. The same argument can just as easily be applied to workers in the last redoubts of private-sector unionism. Equity serves as the rationale for a race to the bottom.

On behalf of this position, DiSalvo makes a series of arguments designed to appeal to liberals. The costs created by public-employee unions, he says, crowd out social spending, and the harms fall primarily on lower-income people, who depend more than other groups on public services. But he can make this case only by ignoring countervailing evidence.

Consider, first, the experience of other countries. Given the logic of DiSalvo’s argument, we should expect to find that wherever public-sector labor unions are strong, governance is poor and economies are weak. DiSalvo points to France, that familiar punching bag, arguing that strong public-sector unions are a key cause of the “French disease” of economic sclerosis. Readers never hear, however, about sclerosis in Sweden, Finland, and Norway—all nations with levels of public-sector unionization more than twice as high as ours. Three-quarters of Canadian government employees are covered by collective-bargaining agreements. Do these nations’ public-sector unions hamstring their governments’ “ability to address social problems” and “reduce inequality”? The lower levels of poverty and inequality in all of these countries suggest otherwise. These comparisons are not dispositive evidence that public-sector unions always contribute to economic health and social well-being, but they show the limits of DiSalvo’s logic.   

Besides looking abroad, DiSalvo might also have dug deeper into the variations in public-employee unionization among states here at home. He has no systematic data to prove that states with low public-sector unionization do better on such metrics as poverty, inequality, or educational attainment. In fact, even a cursory glance at those states suggests the opposite. Mississippi has a public-sector unionization rate of just 3 percent, but it also has the highest poverty rate in the nation and ranks at or near the bottom on most measures of education. Other states with similarly weak public-sector unions include Arkansas and South Carolina, not exactly models for fighting poverty and inequality.

DiSalvo maintains that unionism in the public sector involves “serious trade-offs” with a commitment to an “active government that shields citizens from the ravages of the market and supports society’s least fortunate.” Yet public employment itself—and unionized government employment in particular—“shields citizens from the ravages of the market.” The wages and benefits of bottom-rung occupations in the public sector are more generous than in the private sector. Inequality is lower among workers in the public sector. Recent research by the sociologist David Brady and his colleagues has found that the higher a state’s unionization rate and its level of public--sector employment, the lower is its rate of household poverty.

Public-employee unions also benefit other workers outside government. With private-sector unions fighting for their lives, it increasingly falls to the comparatively strong public-sector unions to advance workers’ interests in the public arena. Many union locals organize both public- and private-sector workers and use the dues from the former to organize the latter. Increasingly, the labor movement is devoting efforts to improve living standards for nonunion workers too, winning battles to raise the minimum wage and to push low-wage employers such as Walmart to boost pay. Public-sector unions contribute to these broader gains.

The roots of these wider commitments lie in the history of public-employee unions. DiSalvo provides a useful but incomplete account of the “unseen rights revolution” that brought millions of government workers into the labor movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. What he misses is the historical connection between public-employee organizing and the civil rights movement. Union organizing drew energy from civil rights activism, and the unions’ growth contributed to the emergence of a black middle class of civil servants in increasingly African American–dominated cities. It’s a testament to the hazy place of public-sector labor in the popular historical imagination that while many people know that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, relatively few recall or ever knew what he was doing there: supporting a strike of black sanitation workers from Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. King and the Memphis strike garner only one passing mention in DiSalvo’s book.

The rise of public-employee unions also transformed the labor movement itself, strengthening its left-liberal side against the hawkish, culturally traditionalist “hard-hat” wing. Public- and service-sector unions counted higher percentages of female and minority members than the old-guard unions did, and they brought the labor movement closer to civil rights, feminist, and countercultural groups. Combining economic and cultural liberalism, the new labor movement has sought to defend advances on both of those fronts. 

While DiSalvo is aware of these developments, he tends to view them as evidence merely of government unions’ full integration into a partisan patronage machine. But one person’s cynical interest-group politics is another person’s coalition for the common good. A conservative like DiSalvo can’t be expected to support public-sector unions’ contribution to broader liberal political causes. Liberals should feel differently.


IN THE WORLD DISALVO IMAGINES, public-sector unions have virtually unchecked and uncontested power and enjoy incomparable legal protections and insulation from market pressures. In low-turnout elections for municipal and state offices and off-year initiatives and referenda, the unions supposedly run the show merely by dint of showing up. And they use those advantages to “elect their own bosses”—politicians who will do their bidding by killing reforms they oppose and lavishing higher pensions, health care, and salaries on their members.

To view public unions as an unstoppable juggernaut, however, is to blind oneself to central political realities. Ever since the 1970s, anti-tax sentiment has limited the growth of public-employee wages and has led to persistent failures to fund health and pension benefits adequately. Union demands have no doubt contributed to these problems, but politicians have often asked public employees to accept promises of higher retirement benefits instead of immediate wage increases. DiSalvo implicitly takes the limits set by anti-tax politics and chronic austerity as givens; in his eyes, the fault lies entirely with workers for asking too much.

DiSalvo also criticizes unions for opposing the privatization of public services, which he believes increases efficiency. In support of that view, he relies on the academic research that supported the privatization wave of the 1980s and 1990s. But scholars of public administration have since told a less rosy story of government-by-contract, emphasizing diminished accountability, vulnerability to waste and abuse, and corruption.

A useful synthesis of this newer scholarship can be found in DiIulio’s book. Best known for his work on crime and prisons and for his brief tenure as head of faith-based services in the White House of George W. Bush, DiIulio has never been a conventional conservative. (In 1990, he published a critique of prison privatization in The American Prospect.) Instead of endorsing the usual conservative line on government, Bring Back the Bureaucrats highlights the dangers of contracting out as part of a broader argument about the rise of what he terms “leviathan by proxy.” Over the last half-century, annual federal spending in constant dollars quintupled while the number of full-time federal civil service workers increased hardly at all. What explains the gap? The federal government has discharged its ever-growing responsibilities indirectly, through grants-in-aid to states and localities, contract work with for-profit firms, and grants and fees passed on to a vast national nonprofit sector.

And what accounts for this epochal shift toward proxy governance? DiIulio points to a core, long-studied contradiction in American public opinion, famously captured in a 1967 study by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril that found Americans to be “ideologically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” Americans hate “big government” in the abstract but like most of the programs the government carries out. Likewise, they hate taxes but hate spending cuts, too. The response of elected officials to these contradictory pressures has been to provide systematically inadequate levels of revenue necessary for federal policies and to carry out ever more of those policies through channels that don’t add to the visible ranks of the dreaded bureaucracy. The result, DiIulio argues, is “a debt-financed, proxy-administered, superficially antistatist form of big government.” Only in America. 

DiIulio highlights the inadequacies and opacity of proxy government to make a counterintuitively conservative argument for adding a million new full-time civil servants to the federal ranks. The state’s invisibility, he argues, has only encouraged its expansion. He thinks that boosting the numbers and capacity of the visible, accountable government workforce, when combined with such reforms as award caps to federal contractors and a comprehensive restructuring of state-federal responsibilities over jointly financed programs, would actually limit the growth of government overall. Whatever the plausibility or desirability of that prediction, DiIulio’s analysis meshes well with a growing and pan-ideological scholarly literature on the modern American state that emphasizes its “hidden,” “delegated,” “submerged,” “extended,” and “divided” qualities. Making government and its employees at once more visible and accountable is a reform agenda implicit in much of this work. 

But what kind of civil service would we want for this more visible American state? DiIulio’s focus is on federal workers, while DiSalvo’s focus is on state and local government. Unions hardly come up in DiIulio’s analysis. But the questions his book raises—about state capacity, the political forces that shape it, and the day-to-day administration of government tasks—provide useful context for evaluating DiSalvo’s arguments. While DiSalvo acknowledges the historical connection between organizing efforts and the professionalization of government work, he sees the ongoing justification for public-sector unions as tied to a fundamentally bogus vision of a “dog-eat-dog world where workers need protection from managers.” The alternative vision he advocates is one in which civil servants work to serve the public good with “little risk of exploitation.” But anti-tax and pro-privatization sentiments have been central to the decades-long failure to staff the civil service adequately and treat it professionally, and DiSalvo shows little inclination to combat such forces while he internalizes their assumptions.

A visible, accountable state run by a strong and professional civil service is a worthy goal, and one compatible with collective-bargaining rights. To take this view is not to endorse every policy stance and negotiating posture taken by public-sector unions, nor to deny that tension and sometimes conflict between government unions and public officials are both inevitable and necessary. But liberals ought to recognize the good that public-employee unions do and resist the political vision of those who seek to destroy them.

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