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Federal unions suffer backlash—due to partisanship, envy and … plain old bad ideas

This week, FEND continues its ongoing exploration of the wider American labor movement—including a look at some of organized labor’s strengths and weaknesses—and how these relate to federal employees and federal unions, specifically. Nathan Abse examines some of the relevant issues in a discussion with Joseph E. Slater, a professor of law and a labor expert at the University of Toledo.

This week, FEND continues its ongoing exploration of the wider American labor movement—including a look at some of organized labor’s strengths and weaknesses—and how these relate to federal employees and federal unions, specifically. Nathan Abse examines some of the relevant issues in a discussion with Joseph E. Slater, a professor of law and a labor expert at the University of Toledo.

Q&A with Joseph E. Slater

Prof. Slater, about increasingly loud verbal and legislative attacks on public-sector unions and their worker protections, you have said that—surprise, surprise—these aren’t motivated so much in pursuit of greater efficiency but rather political payback and going after “political rewards,” right?

Slater: Yes. The perception is—and, usually, an accurate one—that most unions, to the extent they are active politically, support Democrats. And, so, now too often Republicans see attacks on unions as either [useful] political payback against someone or some organization having supported Democrats in the past, or as a way to weaken [someone or some group] so they won’t be able to support Democrats in the future. And to my mind, this development is especially kind of sad regarding the federal sector, because unions in that sector don’t have an enormous amount of clout or ability to bargain [compared to private-sector unions]. Federal public-sector unions—I support them—but they have fewer legal rights, by comparison, to private-sector unions, and so to go after them, as is often happening now, it seems to me unnecessary and of course politically motivated. 

You say private-sector unions have more “clout”? I see that private-sector unions have more rights—for instance, the legal right to strike—but not “clout” like they used to, I mean membership has dropped to just 6 percent of the private sector’s workers?

Slater: That’s right. And that’s part of why Republicans realized a couple of things, in recent years. For example, first, how significant public-sector unions have become, as a portion of the labor movement.  By 2009, pretty much half of all union members in the U.S. were in public-sector unions. (It’s slightly less than that now.) Once that was realized by those who want to weaken labor unions generally, it made public-sector unions a tempting target—they are now a big part of the union membership. Second, public-sector labor law is mostly state and local law. Private-sector labor law, the stuff that governs private-sector labor, is, on the other hand, federal law. And the federal law governing private business has proven hard to amend. Regarding the National Labor Relations Act, the last major changes were back in, like, 1959. That’s half a century ago. So that law remains pretty strong. Yet it has turned out to be easier to amend many aspects of public-sector union law—especially at the level of state law. For instance, in 2011, when those opposed to labor union rights got in control of statehouses in states such as Wisconsin, which used to have robust collective bargaining and labor protections. They will tell you they did that because they genuinely think ‘public-sector workers drive up the cost of labor generally,’ and therefore cost the taxpayers and the public. But I find the evidence for that is pretty scant. There’s very strong evidence, on the other hand, that the opponents of labor are in it to score political points, for political ends.

How do these reductions in public-sector labor rights, at the state level, relate to the labor situation for federal workers?

Slater: Well, the same forces are happening at all levels. The same kind of efforts are being used to reduce union power at the level of federal service, too. Except that at that level, actually their legal protections and power [to take action] to begin with is already relatively weak, compared with other kinds of unions.

In my work, I see the political aspect you point to. But aren’t some attacks on federal labor rights finding fertile ground in some very real agency problems—like the scandal at the VA, where in places there has been real malfeasance?

Slater: Yes, that’s the thing, isn’t it? You can go after a place like the VA, parts of which were not functioning well. But the question remains: are you using the right tools to fix the problems? In other words, it’s appealing to some to say generally, ‘Unions make it harder to fire people, and specifically bad employees, at this or that place.’ But doesn’t that assume that the middle-level managers at places like the VA are primed and ready to do a great job, but are merely constrained by their too-limited rights to fire people? In other words, sometimes, conservatives will say, ‘Hey, sometimes some employees need to be fired.’ And my reply to that is, ‘So, the remaining mid-level federal career civil service are going to be your heroes, after you fire people?’ And I don’t think they really believe in these people, either. The whole rhetoric and act of firing people, here, it’s politicized.

Some of the momentum behind weakening public-sector unions is about politics not just of party and ideology—as we are discussing—but of envy, right?

Slater: Right. Back in 2011, in Wisconsin, you would hear, ‘Oh but the public-sector workers get such fat pension plans.’ But you know, that’s not even something workers at government in Wisconsin can even negotiate [they just come into it as part of the existing law.] There are a lot of gray areas, you know, figuring out what the real efficiency and other problems are and what the real solutions might be. For some people, as we are discussing, yes, the solution they believe in is to get rid of union rights. But usually, to remedy the real problems, the situation is a lot more complicated than it appears to be. And about envy, I think that’s exactly right, what you said in your question. And since the Great Recession, we’ve had a lot of people out of work, [or in less secure work] and therefore you can stir up their resentment and envy against those who seem to have more job security. Defined-benefit pension benefits plans used to be common with private sector employees, as many public-sector employees still enjoy, but as you know that’s no longer the case. So, yes, a lot of this is about a certain amount of jealousy—the sense that public employees have some stuff that’s better than what those in the private sector have. Now, to me, I have always felt the reaction to that should be, ‘Hey, that’s great what those public-sector workers have. We should have that stuff, too!’

What is your take on the effects on morale and productivity—and how much does it hurt both, for feds and their unions to be attacked publicly and politically, and to suffer some of the very real losses from pay freezes and less attractive pensions?

Slater: My take is this. According to conservative (or even moderate) economists, if you want to get better work and incentivize people to provide it, you give them more pay or greater rewards—and if you want to make them angry and alienated and to produce a lower quality of work, then give them less pay. These same economists say the rationale for CEO pay in the millions of dollars is because you want to incentivize the best work from these top executives. Yet, some of the same people somehow say that if you are a teacher in Wisconsin or a public employee anywhere, taking away your rights is supposed to make you better, somehow, at your job? This seems to leave a huge contradiction in the air. You have to expect the same forces act on regular employees when you reduce their incentives—and that goes for people in federal employment, too. You have to treat employees with basic respect and dignity to get them to buy into what they are supposed to be doing. It’s basic psychology and basic common sense. The worse you treat people as a class, the worse they are going to respond—and the worse you can expect from them.

What is your take—bottom line—for federal employee unions? Are they ‘too powerful’ and enjoying too many privileges, as their critics charge?

Slater: The bottom line is that, objectively, federal employees and their federal unions have relatively weak bargaining rights in the first place—and the idea that federal employees have too much power and advantage seems to be one that’s hard to defend, for the federal sector especially.

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