Government Is Not the Answer: Why Public Sector Unions Won’t Rescue Labor


Earlier in the winter the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Harris v. Quinn case. If five justices decide in favor of a group of home care providers, public employees working under a union contract will not have to pay union dues. In other words, the entire public sector will be “right to work.” The case has public employees’ unions rightfully terrified. Many of these unions have already been on the defensive in recent years, fighting rearguard attacks against their ranks in such traditional union strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan, and other jurisdictions.

With all these troubles, the title of this post may seem off-base: why would anyone suggest a set of beleaguered government unions could rescue the labor movement in the first place? The answer lies in the fact it is public sector unions – and public sector unionism – that has remained relatively robust in the wake of decades of declining private sector rolls, and many of the largest organizing campaigns of the last decade or so occurred in the public sector. Despite the recent political and legal setbacks, still roughly a third of all public sector workers remain organized, compared to about one out of every twenty private sector employees.

The relative success (and the emphasis is on relative) of public sector unionism has occurred despite the fact that state laws governing public unions vary dramatically. There is no national equivalent of the Wagner Act in the public sector – states are completely free to ban public sector bargaining. And some do. North Carolina, for example, expressly forbids collective bargaining between state workers and government agencies. Other states – like New York – have well-established routines for bargaining between state and local agencies and public employees. As a result, public sector organization rates between the states vary dramatically. In states such as New York and Rhode Island, roughly two out of every three governmental employee belongs to a union. In southern states such as Mississippi and North Carolina, it’s fewer than one in ten.

Today only one state – Mississippi – has a public sector unionization rate lower than the nation’s private sector unionization rate. Whereas the vast majority of working Americans are employed in the private sector, most union members in the contemporary U.S. are government employees, marking a dramatic turnaround from just a few decades ago, when private sector members comprised a large majority of the American labor movement. And here is the problem. It turns out that a labor movement dominated by government employees looks and acts differently than one rooted in the private sector. This sectoral shift has changed what it is that unions do for their members and who it is that unions represent in fundamental ways. As I explore in my book, the ability of public sector unions to raise wages for their members, to deliver key benefits such as pensions, and to motivate their members to turn out on election day are constrained compared to private sector unions. And a labor movement made up of government workers is richer and better educated than the blue-collar depiction of popular lore.

READ: MSNBC’s Ned Resnikoff responds with “Public Sector Unions Need To Do More Unionizing”

For example, while members in both the public and private sector enjoy a wage premium over their unorganized counterparts, this premium is much higher among private sector members than among those in the public sector. In recent years private sector members enjoy union wage premiums – the wage benefits that are due to union membership – nearly double those of public sector members. Or take pensions: unions have been fighting to establish and expand employer-provided retirement plans for generations. Here again private sector unions appear more successful at delivering this key benefit. Comparing workers who are similar in terms of education, occupation, industry, and age (among many other factors), I find that the probability an organized private sector worker receives an employer-provided pension is 21 points higher than among an otherwise similar nonunion worker. In the public sector, the union advantage is again roughly half as large.

Not only do public sector unions act differently than their private sector counterparts, they look different as well. First off, public sector union members tend to be highly educated, given that public sector workers in general tend to be highly educated. Over 80 percent of union members in the public sector have some college experience, compared to just about half of private sector members. Thus the increasing proportion of unionists in the public sector is disequalizing in terms of education. In other words, a labor movement disproportionately comprised of public sector employees is one that protects and furthers the interest of many already-advantaged Americans, helping to widen divides between the college-educated and everyone else.

It is disequalizing in terms of income as well: Both union members and nonmembers in the public sector out-earn their private-sector counterparts. Among union members, public sector workers’ median weekly earnings are approximately 15 percent higher than members in the private sector. Among nonmembers, the gulf is even larger. Here too we see that as unions concentrate in the public sector, their historical role representing those with comparatively low education and income levels is reduced.

None of this is to suggest that public sector unions and public sector bargaining rights aren’t important. Indeed, stripping more government employees of their collective bargaining protections will only increase the insecurity felt within the contemporary middle-class. But it should alert those concerned about the plight of the labor movement that labor’s future – if there is one – lies in restoring power to unions that organize private sector workers.

Adapted from What Unions No Longer Do by Jake Rosenfeld. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. All Rights Reserved.

Jake Rosenfeld is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, co-director of the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest (SSN-NW), and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology (CSDE), the West Coast Poverty Center (WCPC) and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. He received his PhD in Sociology from Princeton University in 2007. For more information, please see