Public Sector Labor Unions Evolve Over A Century

Joseph Slater, a University of Toledo law professor, talks to Steve Inskeep about the history of government employees' unions, and the background of the current union protests in Wisconsin. Slater is the author of Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law and the State.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Public employees did not always have the rights that Wisconsin employees are protesting to keep. For generations state laws did not support public sector unions. Politicians and the public were dubious of strikes against the government. But the view and the rules for public employee unions evolved over time. Joseph Slater is author of the book "Public Workers."

Mr. JOSEPH SLATER (Author, "Public Workers Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 19001962 "): Well, there were public employee unions as far back as the middle of the 19th century. But big unions that we know now - the American Federation of Teachers, for example -were formed in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. And then the Boston police strike of 1919 occurred and that set things back for quite a while.

INSKEEP: That sounds like a citizen's nightmare to have a police strike.

Mr. SLATER: Oh, yes. It was quite chaotic for a couple of days. And I think it was an unfortunate moment for the history of public sector labor, because then what happened is when people thought about any sort of public sector unions for the next few decades this image of the Boston police strike was in their minds.

INSKEEP: Well, what changed that and prompted public sector unions to become so widespread in places like Wisconsin?

Mr. SLATER: Well, despite the Boston strike, workers kept organizing, for the reasons workers always organize - wages, hours, working conditions. And they began to work with employers. And employers began to realize that public sector unions weren't this big, scary thing.

Beginning in the 1960s, you began to get a group of laws beginning, ironically, in Wisconsin which was the first state law. Soon, about 16 other states followed suit. And through today the overwhelming majority of states give public sector workers the right to bargain - about three-quarters of them.

INSKEEP: Well, now I find it very interesting to hear you say that even before there were collective bargaining rights in many states for public sector unions, that public sector unions existed and they operated. And you're saying that they actually negotiated with employers and got some improvements.

Prof. SLATER: Yes. When I was studying the history of this, this was one of the fascinating things that I found, because I there's often the assumption, well, if you dont have a formal legal right to do something no one can be doing it. But, in fact, all over the country - in Wisconsin and New York and Illinois - public sector unions would organize and work out informal arrangements. And employers must have thought that was a good idea, because they were doing it without any legal obligation to do it.

INSKEEP: How widespread are public employee unions today?

Prof. SLATER: They're very widespread. While union density in the private sector is now below eight percent, union density in the public sector is close to 40 percent.

INSKEEP: Is there evidence to support the contention that these unions have become much more powerful over time? Their critics would say too powerful.

Prof. SLATER: I dont think that there is any evidence to support the contention that unions are causing the budget crises - the budget crises that are being used as, I would say, excuses to try to take away collective bargaining rights.

Study after study shows that public sector workers are, if anything, paid less than private sector workers - there are studies on that specifically on Wisconsin workers. As to pensions, which are also often cited as a problem for budgets, in the vast majority of jurisdictions including Ohio and Wisconsin, most or all rules about pensions and pension benefits are not subject to collective bargaining. Instead, they're set by statute.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying that the pension plans in Wisconsin will not be affected by this whole debate over union rules?

Prof. SLATER: No, there are a couple of things going on. One is to change the rules that are already in Wisconsin's statutory law about pensions. But thats separate from the issue of whether unions can collectively bargain about pensions.

INSKEEP: I mentioned power. What if we think about power a little bit more broadly? Because one of the complaints about public sector unions is basically that they slow the public sector down; it's harder to change, it's harder to get rid of incompetent employees - they simply make things less efficient. Is there an argument to be made, whether it's good or bad, that unions have been a lot more powerful, and added a lot more restrictions on what governments can do?

Prof. SLATER: Well, I wouldnt say that they add restrictions that are necessarily negative. You do have some work rules, but the idea I think with collective bargaining laws is that the workers have some input. And there have been a series of studies on whether unions - public sector, private sector, whatever - increase or decrease efficiency. And I think the collective wisdom of those studies is that there's not a huge impact one way or the other on efficiency, if a set of workers are unionized.

INSKEEP: Okay, Mr. Slater. Im going to let you go. Thank you very much for taking the time.

Prof. SLATER: It was a pleasure to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Joseph Slater is a law professor at the University of Toledo and author of Public Workers.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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