Last year was a tough one for public sector workers. Lawmakers in Wisconsin passed a controversial bill stripping collective bargaining rights from most state employees. Ohio approved similar legislation (although Ohio voters soundly rejected it in a referendum). Other officeholders, like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, claimed that government workers are better paid than private-sector employees, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, 600,000 government workers have lost their jobs since the beginning of the recession.
But things have not always been this way. In fact, 50 years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, which allowed most federal workers to bargain collectively for the first time. As Prof. Joseph McCartin writes in the Los Angeles Times, the effects of Kennedy’s order were much more extensive than that, and, at the time, more popular:
At the time Kennedy acted, very few workers at any level of government had won the right to bargain collectively with their employers. Federal action helped inspire many states and localities to follow suit, allowing their own workers to organize. This triggered a huge wave of unionization in the public sector that saw firefighters, teachers, sanitation workers, social workers and many others form unions in the 1960s and ’70s.
For 20 years after Kennedy’s order, public sector union rights were not controversial. To the contrary, they enjoyed bipartisan support — even from conservatism’s leading light, Ronald Reagan. Reagan, as governor of California, presided over the extension of collective bargaining rights to state and local workers in 1968.
So how have we ended up here, with unions a favorite target of conservatives? McCartin argues that much of the decline in public support for bargaining came from Reagan breaking the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike in 1981. This event was cited by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) when he went on his union-busting rampage.
Blaming public sector workers for government’s fiscal woes may be popular, but the facts don’t support that thesis. As McCartin notes, North Carolina (a state without collective bargaining) is projected to have a 10 percent budget deficit for the 2013 fiscal year, compared to 3.5 percent for New York (more densely unionized than any other). In the case of the federal deficit, studies show that the lion’s share of the increase has come from Bush-era policies like the wars and tax cuts, as well as the effects of the recession. Pay for federal workers does not come close to registering.
One topic that rarely gets discussed is how much unions have actually done to benefit everyone — such as giving us the weekend and ending child labor. Nor do we hear much about the correlation between union membership rates and middle-class incomes, nor how a drop in union membership has exacerbated income inequality in the U.S.