Public-sector trade union

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A public-sector trade union (or public-sector labor union) is a trade union which primarily represents the interests of employees within public sector (government-owned, supported or regulated) organizations. Public sector unions have become some of the larger or more influential unions in certain areas of the world in recent times as private sector union membership has declined sharply.

Such unions are highly controversial among conservatives as well as many liberals1 who argue that public sector unions exert political power in elections to bargain for large pensions and other expensive benefits of which taxpayers are not fully aware, and thereby help to create state and local government budget problems.2



European governments typically engage in extensive consultations and long-term pacts with their public sector unions. Many public sector unions remain apart from the confederations created by private sector unions, although some are affiliated to wholly public sector confederations, such as the Matrix of Croatian Public Sector Trade Unions.34 In 2010 severe financial crises forced several governments to cut back on benefits and pay rates, leading to strong protests. most notably in Greece. For example there was a one-day strike in Greece protesting budget cuts required by the EU for its bailout of Greek finances.5

United States

The first strikes by government employees took place in the 1830s, but the unions generally bypassed government employees because they were controlled mostly by the patronage system before the arrival of civil service. After the fiasco of the Boston Police Strike in 1919, which was suppressed by Governor Calvin Coolidge, and the opposition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt6 to labor unions in the federal government, unionization remained uncommon among government employees. Roosevelt once described that:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters. Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. 7

The Wagner Act of 1935, and subsequent legislation, applied only to employees in the private sector, since the federal government could not interfere in state government.8 The major exception was the emergence starting in the 1920s of unions of public school teachers in the largest cities; they formed the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). In suburbs and small cities, the National Education Association (NEA) became active, but it insisted it was not a labour union but a professional organization.9

Change came in the 1950s. In 1958 New York mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. issued an executive order, called "the little Wagner Act," giving city employees certain bargaining rights, and gave their unions with exclusive representation (that is, the unions alone were legally authorized to speak for all city workers, regardless of whether or some workers were members.) The first U.S. state to permit collective bargaining by public employees was Wisconsin, in 1959.10 Collective bargaining is now permitted in three fourths of U.S. states.11 By the 1960s and 1970s public-sector unions expanded rapidly to cover teachers, clerks, firemen, police, prison guards and others. In 1962, President John Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, upgrading the status of unions of federal workers.12

After 1960 public sector unions grew rapidly and secured good wages and high pensions for their members. While manufacturing and farming steadily declined, state- and local-government employment quadrupled from 4 million workers in 1950 to 12 million in 1976 and 16.6 million in 2009.13 Adding in the 3.7 million federal civilian employees, in 2010 8.4 million government workers were represented by unions,14 including 31% of federal workers, 35% of state workers and 46% of local workers.15 As Daniel Disalvo notes, "In today's public sector, good pay, generous benefits, and job security make possible a stable middle-class existence for nearly everyone from janitors to jailors."16

In 2009 the U.S. membership of public sector unions surpassed membership of private sector unions for the first time, at 7.9m and 7.4m respectively.17

In 2011 as states faced a growing fiscal crisis and the Republicans made major gains in the 2010 elections, public sector unions came under heavy attack especially in Wisconsin, as well as Indiana, New Jersey and Ohio from conservative Republican legislatures.111819 2012 update.20


Public sector unions have come under fire for their substantial lobbying efforts, high pay and high benefits relative to private-sector employees.2122 Conservatives, who have long opposed labour unions, have been particularly critical. Milton Friedman argued that government agencies resemble economic "black holes" where increased 'inputs' lead to declining 'outputs.' Economist Thomas DiLorenzo has argued that:23

The enormous power of government-employee unions effectively transfers the power to tax from voters to the unions. Because government-employee unions can so easily force elected officials to raise taxes to meet their "demands," it is they, not the voters, who control the rate of taxation within a political jurisdiction. They are the beneficiaries of a particular form of taxation without representation (not that taxation with representation is much better). This is why some states have laws prohibiting strikes by government-employee unions. (The unions often strike anyway.)

Politicians are caught in a political bind by government-employee unions: if they cave in to their wage demands and raise taxes to finance them, then they increase the chances of being kicked out of office themselves in the next election. The "solution" to this dilemma has been to offer government-employee unions moderate wage increases but spectacular pension promises. This allows politicians to pander to the unions but defer the costs to the future, long after the panderers are retired from politics.2

Other complaints strongly criticize strike actions by public sector unions as being particularly egregious actions because, in many polities, of the effective monopoly or oligopoly that the government possesses over the provisions of the disrupted services to the widest number of residents; a walkout strike by municipal-level public-sector waste management workers, for example, would leave residents of an entire municipality to deal with accumulations of disposed goods for the duration of the strike.


  1. ^ Roosevelt, Franklin D. "Letter on the Resolution of Federation of Federal Employees Against Strikes in Federal Service". The American Presidency Project. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  2. ^ a b DiLorenzo, Thomas (2011-02-26) The Political Economy of Government Employee Unions,
  3. ^ Dimitrina Dimitrova and Jacques Vilrokx, Trade union strategies in Central and Eastern Europe (2005) p. 93
  4. ^ Judith Kirton-Darling, Representativeness of public sector trade unions in Europe (2004)
  5. ^ See "Greece hit by nationwide strike over austerity" BBC News 10 February 2010
  6. ^ see Roosevelt " Letter on the Resolution of Federation of Federal Employees Against Strikes in Federal Service August 16, 1937"
  7. ^
  8. ^ Richard C. Kearney and David G. Carnevale, Labor relations in the public sector (2001) pp 1-22
  9. ^ Marjorie Murphy, Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980 (1992)
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^ David Schultz, Encyclopedia of public administration and public policy (2004) p. 143
  13. ^ U.S. Census Bureau, "Census Bureau Reports State and Local Government Employment Remains at 16.6 Million" (press release Aug. 10, 2010)
  14. ^ This includes some people who are covered by union contracts but are not themselves members.
  15. ^ Bureau of Labour Statistics, "Table 3. Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by occupation and industry"
  16. ^ Daniel Disalvo, "The Trouble with Public Sector Unions," National Affairs" (issue 5 Fall 2010)
  17. ^
  18. ^ John Logan, "Is this the end for organised labour in the US?,", March 11, 2011
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ Where Did All the Angry Voters Go? (accessed July 6th, 2010)
  22. ^ National Review: Problems With Public-Sector Unions (accessed July 6th, 2010)
  23. ^ see Thomas J. DiLorenzo, "The Political Economy of Government Employee Unions" February 26, 2011

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