Sunday Jun 25

Public Sector Unions Under Attack

Supreme Court Attack

In January 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the landmark case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The Court vote was four to four. This tie affirmed a lower court ruling that denied the challenge to abolish the agency fee requirement.

That law was established in 1977 with the precedent Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. It allowed employees who did not belong to the union to pay only for the direct representation they received from that union. These “free riders” were not compelled to contribute to any political or social views of the union. There were some participation restrictions as well.

The Friedrichs case was more than a financial attack against unions. The case was a direct attack on the right of public sector unions to exist. Many unions would soon collapse without agency fee payments.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is a group of pettifoggers working for the National Right to Work Committee (NRWC). They are leading the attacks against the agency fee law.

The NRWC is one of several groups representing the worst excesses of corporate greed. Their unspoken purpose is to decimate employee union rights. Other supporting groups are the American Legislative Exchange Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

There 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 last year as Janus v. AFSCME. This case may be more compelling than Friedrichs or the other cases that are headed toward the Supreme Court.

The most prominent case 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 upon prior decisions of that Railway Labor Act. If the case is successful, many believe that it will overturn Abood and the agency fee law.

The Trump Administration will soon fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. It is certain that the vacancy will be filled by a person hostile to unions.

Union Numbers Decline

Private sector union membership has dramatically declined in the last 40 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported this month that in 2016 private sector union membership fell to anemic 6.4 percent. Public sector employees had a union membership rate of just 34.4 percent.

Public Sector/Private Sector Union Symmetry

Public sector unions are portrayed by anti-unionists as fundamentally different and less valid than their private sector counterparts. They are not. It is just one more attempt to divide working people.

The motivation of these journalists, pundits, and academics is transparent. They directly advocate for the extinction of public sector unions. This is the strategy of the rich and powerful. Their attacks are increasing now that private sector unions have been largely decimated in numbers.

There is a basic fact that cannot be disputed-the employer/employee relationship in public sector unions is for the most part identical to private sector unions. It is fundamental that public sector union employees are subjected to the same work issues as private sector employees. 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 any virtually any other component of the work day. The motivation of management is the same in both public and private sector unions; it is to minimize the share of compensation and benefits that are transferred to the employees who do the work. Contract negotiations in both sectors are remarkably similar.

The strategy and tactics of public and private sector unions are different. Public sector unions have a political leverage that private sector employees cannot usually avail themselves. That political leverage is mercurial and often overestimated by union foes. Conversely, private sector unions possess the right of work stoppages that public sector unions do not in 39 states. However, the effectiveness of work stoppages is diminished to the point of being rarely employed as an effective tactic according to data at the BLS.

For public sector unions, employees are at the caprice of unpredictable political winds. Some disingenuous political figures seek favor with voters by scapegoating public sector union employees for the failures of management.

For example, 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 different. In numerous studies by non-profit, non-partisan organizations, it is clear 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.

It is hypocritical to deny public sector unions the same protections that private union employees have won. Both unions are essential to protect the interests of their employees.

Public Sector Job Losses

The public sector has not fared well in job losses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013, 719,000 federal, state and local government jobs have been cut since 2009.

Black employees have suffered the most losses in the public sector. The University of Washington Sociology Department released a report in August 2015. It reported that blacks comprised 20 percent of government employees. This compares to whites with 14 percent and Latinos with 10 percent of the public sector workforce.

The study concluded that between 2003 and 2013, black employees, particularly black women, were more likely than whites or Latinos to lose their public sector jobs. The steeper rates of black employment losses occurred even after controlling for education, job type, skills and other factors.


Historically, our nation has both secular and spiritual organizations that fight for the interests of working people chronically excluded from the economy.

Public sector unions must now form audacious, coalitions and alliances with private sector unions, and these enlightened secular and spiritual organizations. They must organize against the relentless attacks of the tiny economic demographic that wields power without conscience.

Polls suggest that the vapid tropes of scapegoating “big government,” immigrants, minorities, and the “greed’ of public sector union 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 last election threw us into a post-facts era. We have seen a frightening trend of toxic fake news, fact checking repudiation, and the utter venom of social media with bogus accounts. It renders decent, hardworking Americans feeling hopeless and helpless, not knowing who to believe or what. Their anger at being excluded from the economy for the last 40 years was underestimated in the last election. It helps explain the surreal phenomenon of a President Trump.

Media that disperses misinformation must be challenged by vigorous research and clear, accessible presentations. We must work smarter and harder. The dots must be connected for all working people by those with the time and resources. This dreadful national polarization must be addressed as our nation enters a somber and dangerous time.

Public and private 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.

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

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