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Beyond Ohio: Why Public Sector Unions Need to Show Solidarity for Private Sector Workers

Pro-labor forces appear en route to win an important battle in Ohio on Tuesday, but the greater war they’re engaged in is very much undecided. As significant as issues like taxes, bargaining, and benefits are for the health of the country’s public sector unions, their real savior has largely gone unspoken in this most recent battle—namely, the bolstering of pay and benefits in the private sector. Progressives will no doubt be tempted to celebrate their victory—not least because it marks a setback for Governor Kasich, and a good omen for Obama’s struggle for this key swing state in 2012—but they should also be wary of myopia.

Anti-labor forces certainly have their eyes set on the broader terrain. When Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker recently declared that “public employees can’t be haves, while private sector employees are have-nots,” he was peddling an obvious half-truth, but also suggesting the outlines of a pernicious anti-labor strategy. Republicans gladly acknowledge the divide in our economy that often places many of private sector workers on the side of have-nots—only to exploit it by mobilizing resentment against those with relative security. Public unions should be thinking of ways to help pull up their embattled fellow laborers in the private sector—or risk being dragged down themselves.

THE LATEST POLLING in Ohio gives the pro-labor forces a 25 point lead in the referendum to repeal legislation that effectively gutted collective bargaining for the state’s public workers. The unions appear to be succeeding for a number of reasons. First, there does seem to be an important groundswell—from Wall Street to Oakland—against these dramatic attacks on working people. Beyond that, the most important factor is labor’s pouring of massive funds into the struggle, which puts this on a financial par with a stiff gubernatorial race. Also at play is Republican hubris, evidenced by their inclusion of firefighters and police in the legislation. Safety workers are both beloved and conservative—at least until their turf is attacked. Then they tend to shun their social conservatism and turn out the troops. 

But the promise of Tuesday’s vote as a pro-labor harbinger is undermined by the persistent weakness of private sector unions in Ohio and elsewhere in the country. Indeed, the successes of public sector employees have always been closely linked with that of laborers in the private sector: it’s largely private sector workers, after all, who are asked to pay for public sector employees through their tax receipts. Having the mega-rich pony up will certainly help—especially in a place like New York City—but outside the worlds of finance capital, working people are going to be paying a good share bills. 

Unfortunately, the numbers here tell a dispiriting story. Today 36.2 percent of public workers are organized—a slightly higher number than the private sector was even in the heyday of American labor history in the 1950s. Private workers today, in contrast, have tumbled to a mere 6.9 percent—a figure suggestive of the wider rot in pay and benefits among unorganized workers. It doesn’t take a labor scholar to see the problem here: A relatively large and well-remunerated public sector is teetering precariously on a rickety and crumbling private-sector working class. 

No wonder public workers fall under right wing attack as some sort of aristocracy of labor. This isn’t simply a matter of mean spirited attacks, as these issues genuinely tap into private sector workers’ ability to pay. We know that once we control for educational level, public sector workers are not paid significantly more than private sectors workers, but their benefits do outstrip those in the private sector—and they’ve often given up pay at the bargaining table to pursue those better benefits. 

A glance at recent history puts this divide between public and private workers into even starker relief. Today, private sector workers look with either envy or scorn at public sector workers, but it used to be the other way around: When public employee unions got their start, their goal was to catch-up to the better-off private sector workers. 

In the mid-20th century’s age of “industrial pluralism,” things looked promising for all workers. Wisconsin’s decision to grant unionization rights to public employees in 1959 and John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Executive Order providing unionization rights to federal workers laid the groundwork for a widespread expansion of public sector unionization. By 1970, twenty-two states had enacted collective bargaining rights for their employees, allowing them to match the quality of their remuneration with their private sector brothers and sisters. By the mid 1970s, the incredible growth of public sector unions began to look a bit like the upsurge of industrial unions in the 1930s. By 1975, in fact, a national public employees relations act of some sort—often thought of as a “Wagner Act for public workers”—seemed unavoidable. (Had such legislation passed, it would have taken collective bargaining out of the morass of state-level politics that public unions are currently struggling with.) 

Despite signs of labor’s private sector rebirth in the early seventies, the decade ended in retrenchment. Core industrial unions lost their base, cultural concerns trumped economic issues, and the Left began to believe unions to be part of the problem not the solution. Even then, the rising conservative movement tried to catalyze divisions between public and private unions in the midst of a set of city and state fiscal crises that parallel our own. While public sector unions only hit a plateau, private unions collapsed into freefall. By the end of the seventies, the densities of public and private sector unionization crossed paths—public unionization was on the way up and private on the way down. Today, there are, in real numbers, more unionized public workers than there are unionized private sector workers. 

To the extent that public sector unionism has always rested upon the resources of private sector workers, that split means trouble. Public sector unionization has often faced a rough road, because of the sketchy right to strike against the public good, of course, but mostly because the taxpayers pay the bills. When the taxpayers are flush, it’s much easier to argue that we deserve a first class public sector. 

So rather than simply organizing to protect the achievements of that diminished number of workers who are still unionized, progressives should be thinking about how to spread those privileges to even more workers. In that way, private sector workers wouldn’t think of their public sector colleagues as adversaries in terms of their tax money—they would think of them as their allies on a much more pressing issue: how to pry more wages out of private employers. 

That said, those seeking to expand organized labor will have their work cut out for them. After years of being exposed to conservative messaging, much of the nation remains skeptical about organized labor. Less than half of the nation approves of unions today, a figure that approaches historic lows. Compare that with polling back in the 1950s (when collective bargaining worked as advertised), and three fourths of Americans approved of unions. The Occupy Wall Street movements suggests that the spark for the national discussion of inequality may come from outside of the formal labor movement, but it’s hard to imagine right now a more efficient or proven way of actually redistributing wealth than bargaining collectively with one’s employer. 

Progressives will certainly cheer if and when the Ohio referendum is defeated, as well they should. But let’s not pop too much champagne yet. No matter what happens in Ohio, public sector workers everywhere will be vulnerable until workers can find ways to make the private sector give up a greater share of its wealth to its workers. The divide among workers between haves and have-nots isn’t sustainable for much longer. What remains to be seen is whether it will be resolved to the benefit of workers at all. 

Jefferson Cowie teaches at Cornell University and is the author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.