The Trouble With Public Sector Unions

A great article by Daniel Disalvo in the fall issue of National Affairs. Here are some of my favorite parts:

When it comes to advancing their interests, public-sector unions have significant advantages over traditional unions. For one thing, using the political process, they can exert far greater influence over their members’ employers — that is, government — than private-sector unions can. Through their extensive political activity, these government-workers’ unions help elect the very politicians who will act as “management” in their contract negotiations — in effect handpicking those who will sit across the bargaining table from them, in a way that workers in a private corporation (like, say, American Airlines or the Washington Post Company) cannot. Such power led Victor Gotbaum, the leader of District Council 37 of the AFSCME in New York City, to brag in 1975: “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”

A further important advantage that public-sector unions have over their private-sector counterparts is their relative freedom from market forces. In the private sector, the wage demands of union workers cannot exceed a certain threshold: If they do, they can render their employers uncompetitive, threatening workers’ long-term job security. In the public sector, though, government is the monopoly provider of many services, eliminating any market pressures that might keep unions’ demands in check. Moreover, unlike in the private sector, contract negotiations in the public sector are usually not highly adversarial; most government-agency mangers have little personal stake in such negotiations. Unlike executives accountable to shareholders and corporate boards, government managers generally get paid the same — and have the same likelihood of keeping their jobs — regardless of whether their operations are run efficiently. They therefore rarely play hardball with unions like business owners and managers do; there is little history of “union busting” in government.

Additionally, the rise and fall of businesses in the private sector means that unions must constantly engage in organizing efforts, reaching out to employees of newly created companies. In government agencies, on the other hand, once a union organizes workers, they usually remain organized — because the government doesn’t go out of business. Public-employee unions can thus maintain membership levels with much less effort than can private-sector unions.

The full article could be found here.

3 Responses to “The Trouble With Public Sector Unions”


  • The Unions did a fool thing? They made it unto the political budget cuts radar scope.

    The republicans get a hold of the “state houses” and the unions can kiss their butts goodbye.

  • The problem is many public-sector unions are players in the Republican Party as well, particularly the “public safety” unions of cops and prison guards.

    What needs to happen is to abolish collective bargaining for all government jobs, make all government employment “at-will”, and pay some small percentage above a market-clearing salary for government workers.

    The odd thing is you’d think “progressive” people would be offended by the monster salaries in the government sector, since this reduces support for government and consumes resources that could be used for “real” progressive causes. But all too many progressives are fanatic free-lunchers who think if only taxes were only a bit higher, there’d be enough money to do everything for everyone.

  • I really wouldn’t mind public sector unions as much, if it was easy to fire incompetent workers. I like Foobarista’s idea, but government rarely makes radical moves like Wisconsin did. Small tweaks to guide negotiations might be easier like mandatory clauses that must be in all public sector contracts set at the state constitution level. Simple things like the minimum retirement age shall match greyfare’s (socialist security).

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