The Consequences of Government Union Ideology

The labor movement in Michigan is undeniably changing. As the UAW, long the state's most powerful private-sector union, loses members due to the restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors, government employees make up a larger and larger part of union membership, a trend that reflects developments throughout the United States and globally.

In 1983, more than 326,000 government employees were covered by collective bargaining agreements, but more than twice as many private-sector workers, 758,000, were covered by such arrangements. In 2008, public-sector unions had lost 13,000 workers, taking the number of government employees covered by union contracts in Michigan down to 313,000. Private-sector unions, however, showed a more dramatic decrease of 270,000, leaving 489,000 workers covered by union contracts.[12] As a consequence, while government employees made up barely 30 percent of Michigan's unionized work force in 1983, their portion of the unionized work force was up to 39 percent in 2008. As the restructuring of the automobile industry continues, government employees are likely to loom larger in the Michigan labor movement. This is in keeping with national trends: Government employees made up 34.6 percent of the unionized work force in 1983, but that increased to 48.9 percent in 2008.[13]

Graphic 1: Government and Private-Sector Workers as Percentages of Michigan Workers Covered by Collective Bargaining Agreements, 1983 vs. 2008 - click to enlarge

Graphic 2: Government and Private-Sector Workers 
as Percentages of U.S. Workers Covered by Collective Bargaining Agreements, 1983 vs. 2008 - click to enlarge

As the union movement's membership shifts from private-sector, for-profit companies to government employment, the goals and strategies of unions themselves are beginning to shift as well, giving rise to what retired Rutgers economist Leo Troy describes as the New Unionism.[14]

According to Troy, the New Unionism, increasingly under the influence of government employees, is more ideological than the old unionism of private-sector workers. The Old Unionists, in his view, accepted free-market economics, albeit grudgingly. The Old Union movement rejected the traditional Marxian socialist prescription of nationalizing the means of production, and instead focused on transferring a larger share of privately derived income toward its members through collective bargaining. As such, it paid close attention to traditional objectives of collective bargaining; Old Unionists tended to view their role primarily in terms of workplace representation. To the extent that government employees were unionized, their unions shared the priorities of private-sector unions, meaning that contract negotiations were less likely to involve public policy issues.

Troy's New Unionism grows out of a new form of socialism. Where classical socialism sought state control over the means of production, the more modern form leaves day-to-day control of firms in the private sector, but redistributes incomes via the state. According to Troy: "[T]he New Unionism is closely tied to the New Socialism. Its members and the employees it represents are the labor force providing and facilitating the redistribution of income."[15]

This shift in the union movement, from the private-sector-oriented Old Unionism to the public-sector-oriented New Unionism, involves a thorough reworking of union goals and strategies. The New Unionism, according to Troy, is more ideological and its goals are broader: Rather than win benefits for its members, the New Unionism intends to reorder society with wealth increasingly doled out by government. The Old Unionism valued economic growth — a larger pie meant more jobs, income and benefits were available for its members. The New Unionism is more willing to ally itself with environmental and other movements that threaten growth and job creation. Its purpose is not to improve conditions for union members as much as to ensure that the government can redistribute incomes in a way the unions deem equitable. The shift seems less radical because enterprises remain in at least nominally private hands, but nonetheless the ideology is sweeping and centered on government: "From each according to his income, to each according to his entitlement."[16] This is a formula for both more government redistribution of wealth and higher tax rates. The result is a more politicized union movement, not just among government employees, but among private-sector unions as well.

Troy's observations also explain why government employers, unlike private companies, rarely resist unionization. Especially when elected officials within a governmental unit are themselves ideologically inclined toward supporting extensive public services, the recognition of a union means an ideological ally is permanently installed in the structure of government.

Troy is not the only person to observe a shift in union priorities from the workplace to politics. Paul Johnston, a former organizer for the Service Employees International Union in the San Francisco-Oakland California area, chronicled his experiences with government employee unions. Like Michigan, California's labor law is based on the NLRA model, and most of the unions that represent California government employees are active in Michigan, so Johnston's observations should apply to Michigan. While Johnston's analysis differs sharply from Troy's in many ways, the two mesh very well on one point: Politics weighs heavily among rising government employee unions:

"In defense of their own status, wages, and working conditions, they can (and do) easily embrace interests that pit themselves against the urban poor. ... [H]owever, public employee unions that are mindful of their political resources and employee strategies of public service unionism are uniquely positioned to build new alliances that defend and assert public needs. These possibilities are well worth examining in a society that systematically underproduces public education, child care, public health facilities, public transportation, and similar 'public goods.' ..."[17]

Johnston describes "public service unionism" as one that "articulate[s] public good and shape[s] the budget in local government," clearly a political orientation. He then goes on to observe, "As [government employee unions] frame their interests as administrable public interests, they are perhaps the quintessential 'state making' social movement." Since the American state has rested on fairly firm foundations since the end of the Civil War, one can infer that Johnston's idea of "state making" could just as accurately be described as "state growing." If there is any doubt remaining that government employee unions are primarily political institutions pursuing political goals, consider his concluding comments:

"Different groups of public workers thus find themselves unavoidably implicated in the policy agendas that orient their work and sustain their funding. ... They are not merely 'interested' in these agendas, however; they enact them" (emphasis added).[18]

The choice of verb is illuminating. Traditional unions do not enact their agendas; they bargain for them, and sometimes (at least in the private sector), they go on strike for them. The people enact agendas through their elected representatives or through referenda.

The breadth of the government employee union agenda and the depth of its political commitments can be illustrated by the organizations that have received contributions from government employee unions. Our 2008 review of union spending found the National Education Association contributed to the National Coalition on Health Care, the National Council of La Raza, People for the American Way and Rainbow/PUSH, all of which the NEA treated as representation expenses. The Service Employees International Union made contributions to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Rainbow/PUSH and La Raza, while the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees contributed to the Universal Health Care Action Network, Americans for Democratic Action and numerous state Democratic Party organizations.

It seems inevitable that government employee unions will be more and more involved in public policy. Indeed, they would probably be unable to succeed any other way. This marks a major shift for government employee unions, one that has profound implications for Michigan. Collective bargaining under PERA gives government employee unions methods for affecting public policy through collective bargaining that no other interest group shares, and at the same time the union movement is shifting its attention from the workplace to public policy. PERA no longer empowers unions, at least as they have traditionally been understood as a workplace representative. Instead, PERA now empowers a social and political movement. Whether one calls that movement "New Socialism" or "Public Service Unionism," it would seem to have little concern for the burden that government places on private citizens or enterprises.