Economic Development

White-Collar Blues

Public employee unions have suffered setbacks, but they're not as weak as they sometimes claim to be.
by | June 2005

A few weeks ago, Gerald McEntee, the longtime president of AFSCME, came by our offices to complain that "the challenges faced by workers and the labor movement" are the worst he's ever seen. There's certainly a case to be made that public-sector unions face a harsh climate: a drive by some governors to take away collective-bargaining rights, a continued push in many states for privatization and outsourcing of services, and ongoing fiscal pressures on salaries, pensions and benefits. But state employee unions haven't lost anywhere near the power that their brethren in the private sector have lost over the past couple of decades.

It's true that new governors in Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri have gotten a lot of attention by canceling collective-bargaining rights, just as Colorado's Bill Owens did some time ago when he blocked automatic dues collection from union-worker paychecks. All these governors view unions as an impediment to their plans to reshape and streamline government agencies. Certainly Arnold Schwarzenegger can blame unions for many of the problems he's had in pushing a "reform" agenda this year. "It's exceedingly difficult to effect change where there's a collective-bargaining arrangement, because it means there are vested interests that have to be adversely impacted," says Jim Baird, a Chicago attorney who has negotiated hundreds of labor contracts for governments.

It's also no accident that almost all of this year's anti-labor maneuvers come from Republicans who have enjoyed scant political support from unions. When Republicans comprise a majority in gubernatorial ranks, as they do right now, collective bargaining is going to take its lumps.

But it shouldn't be forgotten that union membership remains much higher in state and local government than in the private sector. Fewer than 8 percent of workers at private companies belong to a union these days; the government figure is more than four times that.

And unions, whatever the problems might be, are still finding important allies and winning significant battles. In New Mexico this year, Democratic Governor Bill Richardson not only undid his predecessor's executive order to block collective bargaining but managed to enact bargaining rights into law. As the state budget picture starts to brighten in most corners of the country, unions have been negotiating fair-sized raises--even in states, such as North Dakota, that disallow collective bargaining. "None of these orders by any of these governors has stopped us from continuing our work as a union in these states," says Steve Porter, director of AFT Public Employees. "It makes it more difficult, but it's not fatal."

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