Why Public Sector Unions Might Sort Of Rescue Labor

0301_union-firefighter-630x420Sometimes it’s as though someone writes an article that is trying to troll me specifically, knowing exactly what buttons to push. “Government Is Not the Answer: Why Public Sector Unions Won’t Rescue Labor” by Jake Rosenfeld on Talking Points Memo is one such piece (based on his book What Unions No Longer Do, which I admittedly have not read). Anyone who knows me personally knows that I am a staunch union supporter and I can ramble for hours on end about how important it is to have the jobs that provide public goods, like an educated society or something more mundane like roads, be good jobs themselves.  I find the public rhetoric about how unions are bad for workers nothing but absurd (as if another labor market institution, like employers, would be better at keeping workers’ best interests in mind). But how did Jake Rosenfeld know this about me and why is he trying to make me so agitated???

Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe rebutted Rosenfeld’s premise that public sector unions are somehow bad for labor in her counter-piece on Talking Points Memo “Labor May Not Need ‘Saving,’ But We Still Have a Long To-Do List.”Jaffe agrees with Rosenfeld that public sector unionism will not “save” the labor movement on the whole, but she points out the flawed notion in thinking one specific thing can “save” a movement. Historically, a lot of the strength of the labor movement came from broad-based social justice activism, by getting union members and their communities politically engaged, and this in turn created an environment in which unions could thrive.

Rosenfeld argues that it is poor union strategy for the backbone for the labor movement to be public sector unions, which he argues are ineffective compared to their private sector counterparts. The facts he lays out are not necessarily untrue, but his article is missing one key point in the public sector labor movement: the dynamic between the government and the workers that are employed in it, which is played out through both the government budgeting process as well as the collective bargaining process. The deep cuts in government budgets during the recession and into the recovery have led to subsequent declines in public sector employment, with the teacher labor force being particularly hit with losses. As of last September, Patrice Hill points out in the Washington Times that this has been a drag on the recovery. On top of this, the over-representation of women in the public sector means that claims of a “mancession” – where men disproportionately lost their jobs in the recession – has led to a “mancovery,” where men have fared better in the recovery. The lack of regrowth of the public sector has hurt women’s overall employment rates. I’m guessing it is no accident that conservative deficit hawks hyper-focus on slashing government budgets has had the secondary effect on the labor movement through its effect on public sector work.

In her piece, Jaffe also reminds us that public sector workers often bargain for improvements in working conditions that necessarily improve the quality of public services. This is important for an equal society where everyone can get access to high quality public services like education and health care, which can improve the economic opportunities available to everyone, not just those within the labor movement. So while Rosenfeld’s very basic premise that the labor movement is on the decline and public sector unions alone will not save it, he is missing the point of the broader economic effects of a well-funded and unionized (and these two are often correlated) public sector.

Teachers are a prime example of the positive effects of a predominantly unionized public sector workforce. Teachers make up a large proportion of local public sector workers, and 45% of local public sector workers are represented by a union, much higher than the 12.5% of all workers represented by unions. But teachers’ unionization does not effect their pay levels as much as you might guess. In one study of Missouri, Iowa and Indiana, economist Michael Lovenheim found that teacher unionization did not increase teacher pay, although it did increase teacher employment levels. In another economic study, Mark Gius found that unionization increases teachers satisfaction, making them less likely to leave for a higher paying job, and increases their self-reported enthusiasm for teaching. After all the bogus and near-mythical stories about the lazy tenured teacher, you’d think that there would be interest in finding ways to incentivize teachers to have enthusiasm for their work. Well, it seems as though unions may be a more effective way of doing this than schemes to reduce union power and institute market-based education reform like pay-for-performance.

Teachers, through carrying out the mission of public education, also provide a multiplier effect in our society, creating economic value in the long-run. Renowned education economist Eric Hanushek put together a little back-of-the-envelope measure of the value of a good teacher and found that having a teacher in the top 75 percentile of teachers (flawed education quality measures aside) can increase lifetime earnings by nearly $500,000 for a student. But where he gets his analysis wrong is in arguing that unions don’t help ensure high quality teachers. He misunderstands that unions do in fact incentivize good teachers since teachers’ collective bargaining is often for working conditions, which is students’ learning conditions too, and unions increase a teacher’s enthusiasm for her job. Furthermore, unions will likely increase teacher tenure through the incentives of pension benefits. Longer tenure means more experience in the job and in the school system, which has been found to be highly correlated with education outcomes. If we believe Hanushek’s first stylized argument about the economic value of good education, then the extension is that unions may help this outcome.

If teachers unions can improve the economic prospects of their students in the future, then investing in teachers is a way to invest in our future economic well-being. Other public services, like publicly funded health care and a well-functioning infrastructure, can likewise improve economic outcomes. Since public sector unions are often bargaining for the mere ability to perform their jobs well, strong public sector unions can stimulate our economy through providing these services that improve societal economic well-being and opportunities. Because of the relative equality of the provision of public services, compared to private services, high quality public services can improve conditions of economic equality. And in turn, a healthy and equal (or at least less unequal, I hope) economy is one that can afford to pay workers well and support a strong labor movement to ensure that this happens.

So while Rosenfeld might not be entirely wrong to say that public sector unions will not “save” the labor movement, he misses the big picture where they are still a key piece of part of a vibrant labor movement with broad-based, long-term positive economic effects.

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Categories: 9 to 5, Unions

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