In Honor of the Workers of Wisconsin: Classic TRP – In Defense of Public Sector Unionism III

In Budget Politics, California, Democratic Governance, Economic Planning, Economics, Education Reform, Full Employment, Liberalism, Living Wage, New Deal, Political Ideology, Politics, Politics of Policy, Progressivism, Public Policy, Public Sector, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Taxes, Unions, Welfare State, Wisconsin on February 25, 2011 at 11:21 am


The last installment in The Realignment Program’s re-posting of its series on public employee unions is here, and we turn from defending the idea of public employee unions to thinking towards a more expansive, hopeful vision of how progressives can promote public sector unionism.

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.

Which leaves us with the critical task of rethinking how progressives should approach government from the perspective as an employer of public sector workers. We’ve already discussed how the corporate model of the public sector is diametrically opposed to progressive goals and ideals, but as I’ve always believed, it is never enough to say what should be done away with – you have to have something to put in its place.

A New Model of Progressive Government:

Luckily, there is another model of how progressives can thinking about the relationship between the state and its workers, and how progressive elected officials should relate to public sector unions. It’s one that you can find in place in cities, counties, and states all over the country, except that’s it’s not really visible as an exportable model – indeed, outside of the main public sector unions like SEIU or AFSCME, it doesn’t get much public discussion (except on the right where it’s denounced as liberals “in the pockets of big labor”). Crucially, it’s not talked about consciously as a matter of ideology and beliefs as opposed to practical politics.

The model in question is a solidaristic partnership model of progressive public sector labor relations.

As it stands, progressives often think about the progressive movement and the union movement as united on the electoral level, where progressives see unions as a critical constituency that represents the aspirations of workers both looking for redress of grievances against their employers and to unite with other elements of society to further the cause of social justice and economic security. When progressives think about the progressive movement and the union movement’s relations after election day, something strange happens – progressives start to think about the union movement as a special interest that’s opposed to a “general” or “common” interest, and especially in the case of public sector unions (but also in the case of private contracts and prevailing wage statutes) looking to unjustly enrich itself from the public coffers. Thus, when it comes to the governance side, progressives want to keep unions at arm’s length. This creates significant tension with the union movement, which sees this as an ungrateful (and ultimately counter-productive) attack on an indispensable ally, and a betrayal of the cause of social justice.

However, in a solidaristic partnership model, unions are rethought as a crucial player in the governing process, who should be brought into collaborative discussion with elected officials about how to best achieve progressive goals – in the same way that progressives would want to bring communities of color into the governing process (through democratic institutions like the Community Action Program of the War on Poverty) to guide civil rights policy.

In order to make a full transition to this new model at every level of government, however, progressives are going to have to make some changes in our thinking about how progressive governments should operate.

Abandon the Corporate Ideal of Government in Return for Civic Unionism:

The 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 series, the corporate ideal is intrinsically tied to the conservative idea that corporations are inherently and uniquely efficient organizations – and that this idea has been used to repeatedly thwart progressive attempts to undo the social and economic damage caused by corporate industrialization. Whether we’re talking about the welfare state (where the conservative argument is that the welfare state is an inefficient expensive burden on corporate efficiency, and that “welfare capitalism” is preferable), or the regulatory state (where the conservative argument is that inherently inefficient governments can never regulate properly and only create burdens for corporations, who could produce superior results through self-regulation), the corporate ideal is hostile to the basic mission of progressivism and should be jettisoned with immediate effect.

Civic Unionism :

In its place, progressives should embrace the expansion of “civic unionism” as the progressive vision for how the public sector should operate as an industry. Civic unionism was an outgrowth of the Popular Front of the 1930s (think the UAW in Detroit or the ILGWU in New York City), encapsulated in the belief that everyone in the community (especially in the case of working-class majority communities) should be a part of the union, and that the union should be an expression of and a vehicle for the will and aspirations of the common people through advancing issues of common concern (pushing for higher wages without price increases, for example, or single payer health care instead of private benefits), and that the union and the community together should “control our turf” through a union-based political movement.

For progressives, civic unionism decisively rebuts the objections to public sector unions within progressivism by removing fears of “outside domination” by asserting a common interest and identity between the union and the sovereign people. It also eliminates the fear of “special interest” plundering of the public trust by redefining the union’s focus outwards instead of inwards.

What this means for public sector unions is an expansion of power – that public sector workers should be at the table with elected officials when budgets are drawn up, when issues of taxation and spending are decided, and when new policy is being drafted – and an expansion of responsibility. If civic unionism becomes the dominant model, public sector unions will have direct responsibility for both the quantity and quality of public services, and the success or failure of the government to achieve the outcomes that the people want. In part, it means moving the focus of collective bargaining away from short-term considerations of immediate gains to the long-term stability of the union and the maintenance of the “union standard” of public sector “products.”

Labor Party Governance as Solidaristic Partnership

In return, progressive elected officials and their supporters in the progressive movement have to re-think their behavior and attitude towards the workers they rely on to carry out progressive policies. Giving up the tools of corporate management – the right to hire and fire “at will,” the freedom to impose decisions by executive fiat, the ability if challenged to break union contracts or hire scabs – is a surrender of power that requires something of a leap of faith. In return, what progressive elected officials gain is a greater degree of trust and cooperation from public sector workers; after all, whether it’s in public or private enterprises, union workers work harder and more productively in part because they feel respected and listened to by their employers. You’re not going to get the kind of “big picture” thinking that comes with civic unionism without a genuine feeling of partnership.

It’s also the case that corporations in Europe or Japan have been able to reap enormous gains in productivity because their boards include union representatives (thus providing a more diverse array of opinions and a greater “buy-in” from the workforce in regards to management policy) and because shop floor committees have the autonomy to re-arrange the spatial, technological, and organizational setup of the production process, that workers can contribute the practical knowledge gained from the experience of working directly on the line to making the process safer and more efficient. Similarly, a solidaristic organization of public enterprises can reap enormous benefits by listening to the people who have a ground-level view of how bureaucracy functions, and by allowing public sector workers to shape their own workplaces so that rules and regulations work with, not against the smooth and speedy operation of government.

However, you won’t get this kind of a leap of faith until the Democratic Party begins to understand itself as a labor party – the party of the working class and the common people of the United States. That’s not to say that the Democratic Party is wholly a creation of labor unions or that progressive elected officials lack agency of their own, but rather that the union movement is a constitutive element of the progressive movement, and that by democratically creating a common agenda based around a vision of a high-quality public sector, we can move beyond a hierarchical structure to one of cooperation and joint direction.

Moreover, by bringing one of the largest constitutive elements of the common people into the halls of government and giving them the freedom to guide their work process, labor party governance is actually a democratization of government. Instead of rule by a technocratic elite who make decisions from on high, labor party governance brings the people inside the government and puts them in charge of making it work.

Full Employment and Hiring Halls In Return for Productivity Standards

This brings us back around to where we started, with the issue of efficiency progressives and their critique of public sector unions. While I’m confident in the empirical argument made in part 2, to the extent that efficiency progressives need a “quid pro quo” for the adoption of solidaristic governance (and to the extent that such a radical experiment requires being able to “produce the goods”), I think there is a way to increase labor productivity in the public sector without resorting to Taylorite models the likes of which we’ve seen in the education reform debate.

As I first explored almost a year ago, one of the reasons why teachers unions have been unwilling to get on board the “measurement and accountability” bandwagon is that there’s zero trust between the unions and the reformers who are, let’s not forget, their bosses. In the eyes of teachers unions, rhetoric about efficiency has largely been either the thin end of the wedge for untested or outright ineffective policies such as charter schools or cover for mass layoffs and the elimination of worker’s protections in the name of re-establishing at-will employment. However, as I have argued, if we give unions responsibility for labor quality by employing teachers through a hiring hall-like mechanism, we completely change the dynamic. If public sector unions can be assured that they’re not going to lose a voice in the workplace or jobs, then they begin to acquire a strong interest in ensuring that union labor is the most productive there is – and historically, craft unions with hiring halls developed incredibly high standards (both in terms of proficiency and even personal character) and intensive apprenticeship and selection systems to ensure that all union members are up to snuff.

Now this isn’t a model that the likes of Michelle Rhee would approve of – it’s antithetical to the individualistic and pro-corporate ideal of perfectly measuring output and having total managerial freedom to replace or retrain workers, or redesign production processes that lies at the heart of the “accountability movement.” But there is no simpler way to create accountability for teachers than to put them in charge of producing high-quality teachers and giving them the decision-making authority to gate-keep who becomes a teacher. The same thing is true for the public sector as a whole – unions know that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and will respond accordingly.

It also requires a commitment to full employment in the broader economy – by their very composition and heritage, unions look at the bottom cohort of teachers not as a statistical opponent to be vanquished but as real people who have families who depend on them, and who have mortgages and student loans, and who need to live just like anyone else. Throwing people onto the street in a period of nigh-double-digit unemployment is a gross social injustice, but in a context of full employment, the injustice disappears – an ineffective teacher can become an accountant or anything else, secure in the knowledge that not being suited for one career doesn’t mean economic catastrophe. Instead of defending ownership over the job as a defense against dislocation and trying to maintain jobs at all costs, public sector unions can focus on building a public sector that works for all the people.


If this kind of relationship between public officials and public sector unions is familiar to you and reminds you of your local government, then you probably live in a progressive area where public sector unions are politically engaged in the Democratic Party and where progressive elected officials have chosen to pursue a policy of collaboration over confrontation. If it’s not familiar to you, I recommend traveling to a progressive area and visiting some government offices, so that you can come to understand that there’s nothing scary about solidaristic government.

My final word on the matter – progressives: you must remember that unionism is both a means and an end for the progressive cause, both a practical and a moral necessity. There is very little to be lost and so much to gain.

  1. […] I’ve discussed in my “In Defense of Public Sector Unionism” series, all workers have the right to form and join unions, no matter how elevated or prosaic their work […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: