In Defense of Public Sector Unionism – Part 1

In Budget Politics, Economic Planning, Economics, History and Politics, Liberalism, Living Wage, Political Ideology, Politics, Progressivism, Public Policy, Public Sector, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Unions on March 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm


There is something strange about the Democratic Party’s love of attacking parts of its own coalition. Every political party has divisions inside it, but disagreements between factions and interest groups are usually solved through negotiation, power-sharing, and the like. The Democratic Party is highly unusual in the level of existential opposition it’s willing to engage in – the infamous “Sister Soljah” moment, the bitterness of the Rainbow Coalition vs. New Democrat conflict that arguably lasted well into 2008, and so on.

However, there’s nothing quite as strange as the loathing of certain parts of the Democratic Party for the very existence of public sector unions.

Progressives Against Public Sector Unions:

Because of the Democratic Party’s reliance on the American labor movement for political organization (especially when it comes to field campaigns) and financial contributions, hostility toward public sector unions within the Democratic Party coalition is usually kept somewhat below the radar.

However, we begin to see this hostility come out among self-described progressives, especially well-educated, professional, middle class progressives, when it comes to education debates over testing (think self-proclaimed progressive blogger Mickey Kaus) and its use in deciding pay and termination issues, and when public sector budgets get tight (the much-more-pro-union-than-Kaus Matt Yglesias on public pensions). That’s when the abstract approval of the right to unionize begins to fade away, and we begin to see the same kinds of rhetoric that the right uses to demonize unions emerge – public sector unions protect inefficient workers and fight changes to bureaucratic red tape, public sector employees are too costly, and so on.

What differentiates this “progressive” anti-public-sector-unionism from conservative variations is the extent to which it relies on a deep strain of New England-style civic republicanism that’s been a part of the left since before the Progressive Era. Beginning in the 1870s, the first self-proclaimed liberals both within the Democratic and Republican Parties (who shared a common white, Protestant, university-educated middle class background) began to fight to transform city government away from patronage-driven machines and ran straight into the problem of unions – albeit more in the realm of “common carriers” and workers on public contracts.

A very influential school of progressives were deeply inspired by the lure of technology and organizational innovation, and took the corporation as their ideal form of an efficient, modern institution. The turn to the city-manager model of city government, the introduction of civil service tests to increase the quality of public sector workers by attracting “the best men,”  and the use of Taylorite time and motion studies in the public sector were all inspired by the vision of the government as a corporation. A more efficient government, run by educated elites and guided by expertise and (social) scientific analysis, would wash away the inefficient ways of party politics and provide a solution to the problems of modernity.

At the same time that early liberals and “efficiency” progressives pushed for the reconstruction of government along corporate lines, these reformers also tapped into the ideals of republicanism, which holds that the people are sovereign, and that republican government must always be on the lookout for corruption from within the government that might usurp popular control. As opposed to classical liberal ideology, which saw the government as a natural locus for competition and conflict, civil republicans believed that the government should embody the common good – and in order for that to happen, government needed to be run by “public servants” who refrained from engagement in politics, and who sacrificed the financial rewards of the private sector for a higher vocation. In this, classical republican beliefs that public officials should be “disinterested” and only concerned with the common good transferred over to public sector workers.

When combined with the “efficiency” reformers’ belief that civil service tests and an emphasis on formal qualifications would mean a government by “the best men,” the two strains of thought were easy to merge. Efficiency reformers might see a prevailing wage on city contracts as an inefficient deviation from the market wage and republican reformers might see the same as a corrupt bargain crooked politicians angling for votes and politically connected unions looking to skim from the public treasury, but they both agreed on the core issue.

In this vision, public sector unions are a dangerous threat. To begin with, many republicanist Progressives were never happy with the idea of independent trade unions – as a “class interest,” they potentially threatened the unity of the sovereign people around the common good. Progressives who were strongly influenced by liberal individualism were motivated by a desire to protect the individual, “the little guy,” from the “curse of bigness” – whether it be Big Business or Big Political Machines (and perhaps in the future Big Labor) – saw unions as focused on the group instead of the individual, on collective action over individual deliberation. “Efficiency” reformers saw public sector unions as institutions that would assert the agency of public employees against public managers, thus threatening the hierarchical chain of command deemed necessary for efficient operation, moving managers from the shining ideal of scientific planning to the messy reality of conflict and negotiation. Most of all, as organized participants in local politics, public sector unions potentially threatened to create a voting bloc that could form a common cause with unruly working class elements and outvote the “better elements” of society.

For their part, and in a sense of fairness, public sector unions didn’t and don’t trust “efficiency” progressives that much either. In their eyes, the college-educated professionals who call on the unions to sacrifice for the common good are part of the same class as the bosses who would like nothing better than to bust their unions outright, especially when these self-proclaimed progressives start using the same anti-union rhetoric. When discussing sweeping changes to how workers get hired and fired, paid and promoted, and especially changes to the relative power of workers and management, there’s neither incentive nor basis for trust that the interests of workers will be safe in the hands of “efficiency” progressives.

Why Public Sector Unions:

In the face of this conflict, it’s important to remember why public sector unions exist and why progressives should support them.

First, labor rights are universal. The right to organize flows from the right of all citizens to assemble and associate, and is recognized by the U.N under Article 23 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. This same right should hold whether one is working for the government or for a private employer – this becomes especially obvious when you compare workers in identical professions. A sanitation worker who works for the City Sanitation Department has to do the same work under the same conditions as a sanitation worker who works for City Sanitation Services, Inc. and should have the same rights to pursue their interests.

Even a cursory examination of labor history – the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker’s strike where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last days, for example – shows that public sector employers can be just as bad as private sector employers when it comes to wages and benefits, working conditions, safety standards, and hostility to their workers and to unions (more on this in future segments). That the public sector should be a better employer because its workers are also citizens  who the public sector is supposed to serve and who have rights the public sector is supposed to respect (such that unions are unnecessary, goes the theory) does not mean that in reality it will be.  Especially in the growing gray-area of privatized public services and public contractors, there literally is no difference between the two – if you have a boss, you need a union.

The ideal of the vocation, that public sector workers should be motivated by a higher mission, simply isn’t appropriate to the modern world of work. It’s a relic of medieval religion, the original “vocare” to teach or heal coming from God, and it ultimately means that public sector workers should embrace selfless denial – because it’s good for the rest of us. At the end of the day, public sector workers aren’t priests (by the way, public sector workers don’t get free housing, food and clothing, education, health care, and retirement the way that priests, monks, and nuns do).

Second, public sector unions are a natural ally of the state.  Contrary to Mickey Kaus (“Unions are what make affirmative government unpalatable”), the truth is that public sector unions are one of the few institutions that have a vested interest in seeing that either the welfare state (health care, education, social services, etc.) or the regulatory state (SEC, FDA, EPA, etc.) works.

In a sense, this grows from the natural inclination of all unions. As I’ve pointed out in the past, private sector unions historically have been proponents of state-provided health care and similar benefits because they mean that workers are less dependent on their employers for economic security and are thus freer to assert their rights and confront their employers. (It would also mean that unions could focus on issues of industrial democracy and wages, rather than get bogged down in the minutiae of actuarial tables) At the same time, given the historic imbalance of power between unions and corporate employers, unions tend to view public regulatory authority as beneficial to their cause – when corporations refuse to negotiate over workplace safety issues and the union isn’t strong enough on its own to force a resolution, workers can bring in OSHA or the FDA or the EPA or the Labor Department either as advocates or adjudicators.

The “movement culture” of unions, built up over centuries of struggle, is also a potent wellspring of progressive politics. Whether a union’s origins lie with socialism, communism, catholic social thought, “labor republicanism,” the experience of belonging to a trade union makes workers more likely to support other progressive movements and to vote in more progressive ways. In 2008, for example, seniors voted for McCain by 8% but seniors who were union members voted for Obama by 46%; non-college whites voted for McCain by 18%, non-college white union members voted for Obama by 23% points. This same pattern has been true in the U.S ever since the New Deal – even in close elections, even in Republican landslides, unions are loyal supporters of the Democratic Party, and of liberal and progressive Democrats especially.

In another sense, public sector unions have another incentive to be progressive allies – the more services the state provides and the more strictly it regulates, the more jobs there are for public sector workers; hence, public sector unions are one of the only segments of society that don’t have a problem with raising taxes (a proposition that anti-public-sector-union conservatives readily agree with). At the same time, it’s important for public sector unions that the public sector be seen as effective and competent: privatization hurts public sector unions, due to the extreme difficulty of organizing in the private sector; likewise, anything that might provide public support to conservatives, who combine anti-tax/pro-cut politics with anti-union politics, also hurts them.

This is why when the modern conservative movement began its push against the New Deal in the late 1940s, it started with Taft-Hartley, not an attack on Social Security. The strategy then, as now is simple: the weaker unions are, the fewer votes there are for progressive candidates and causes, and the weaker the Democratic Party is.

Third, the public sector should be a yardstick for the private labor market.  As I’ve discussed in the past, one of the subtler powers of the government is that it can set the “moral plane of competition” in a market, deciding that child labor or carcinogenic materials in food is unacceptable behavior. While this usually takes the form of direct regulation – thou shalt not – it can also take the form of “yardsticking,” in which a public utility is set up, both to provide consumers with an alternative to private monopolies, but also to give regulators an idea about what the fair market rate actually is for a given product – allowing them to shine a spotlight on monopolistic practices.

In a way, the public sector has been a yardstick for the private sector ever since the 1960s. It’s a heavily unionized industry (37.4% compared to 7.2%) – which means that workers can’t be exploited. As private employers have rushed to jettison health care plans and change defined benefit plans (in which the employer agrees to a basic pension) to defined contribution plans (in which the employer may or may not match an employee’s 401k or the like), public sector workers have kept theirs – and are therefore protected against economic risks.


In the final analysis, progressive engagement with public sector unions has the strange potential to bring out either the best or worst in the progressive movement and its elected leaders. On the “worst” side, public sector unions can bring out the worst kind of soulless technocrat-ism and authoritarian elitism in progressives, and the way in which arguments about the “common good” can be mobilized by the powers that be to crush dissent and hide exploitation. On the “best” side: progressivism has historically wrestled with the accusation that it’s nothing more than middle-class reform-ism whose ambitions run no further than making capitalism even more efficient, despite its genuine commitment to fighting the evils of industrial (and now post-industrial) capitalism on behalf of the beloved community. By continuing its commitment to unionized public sector workers – even when it’s politically costly – progressivism can stake a claim to honesty of purpose.

  1. […] the rest here:  The Realignment Project. Post a comment | Trackback […]

  2. “The ideal of the vocation, that public sector workers should be motivated by a higher mission, simply isn’t appropriate to the modern world of work.”

    It is indeed, appropriate. The loss of this ideal is pne of the largest contributors to our current economic and environmental mess. All people should have a vocation, public employees or no. All work should be motivated by the higher mission of the welfare of others – the group and society as well as the individual.

    • The problem with the ideal is that it demands a total abnegation of the self. Hence, the teacher or the nurse is told: accept less than a living wage, request no health insurance or pension, no job security or rights of any kind – because you do this out of a vocation. This is wrong for two reasons: practically, it has the impact of greatly diminishing both the quantity and quality of the potential workforce, because “most people must live by work” and simply cannot afford to live at such a level – especially when the cost of education and training is so high. Morally, I feel that the ideal ultimately conceals and excuses exploitation and injustice, and assumes that some workers should live as servants to others.

      I have no objection to the idea that people should find meaning in their work or value in its effect on the welfare of others – but I will insist that that meaning must come hand-in-hand with a commitment to a living wage, comprehensive social insurance, universal health care, and the security of industrial democracy.

  3. […] part 1 of “In Defense of Public Sector Unions,” I concentrated mostly on the ideological side […]

  4. […] corporate ideal of government discussed in part 1 is not one of the better legacies of progressivism. As I’ve discussed in my Public Virtues […]

  5. […] In Defense of Public Sector Unionism – Part 1 […]

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tony Thomas, Lyle , Topsy, Top 5k, topsy_top20k and others. topsy_top20k said: In Defense of Public Sector Unionism – Part 1 | #p2 […]

  7. […] tended to over-emphasize incentives over resources, and relies too much on an economistic model of corporate efficiency. I think primary and secondary schools should emphasize employment as well as college, and […]

  8. […] in part one, we learn some of the background of why even some progressives are uncomfortable with the idea of […]

  9. […] part 1 of “In Defense of Public Sector Unions,” I concentrated mostly on the ideological side […]

  10. […] In part 1 of “In Defense of Public Sector Unionism,” I discussed the historical roots of progressive unease with public sector unions, and why ultimately such antipathy contradicts progressive ideology and frustrates progressive politics. However, readers demanded to see the statistical proof that public sector workers were not the over-paid gold-brickers of right-wing mythology. Thus, in Part 2, I demonstrated that the wage differential between public and private sector workers is actually a statistical illusion – public sector workers are union workers, and union workers earn essentially identical wages whether they’re in the public or private sector – and that most public sector pensions are modest, while exorbitant pensions are a statistical blip caused by public sector management’s compensation. […]

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