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The Future of Public-Employee Unions

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The Future of Public-Employee Unions

National Affairs March 30, 2020
Public SectorThe Role of Unions

After remaining dormant for three decades, the issue of labor unions in state and local government erupted onto the national stage in 2011. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker introduced legislation to reduce the scope of public-sector collective bargaining, end government collection of union dues from employee paychecks, and require unions representing public employees to hold annual elections to legitimate themselves. Tens of thousands of people descended on the state capitol in protest. Democratic legislators fled the state in an effort to prevent a vote on Walker's "Budget Repair Bill," known as Act 10. After much wrangling, Walker prevailed, and Act 10 became law.

In the ensuing decade, government-labor relations has been a subject of intense political controversy. It has been at the top of many state legislative agendas and the subject of litigation in state and federal court, including the Supreme Court. Republicans sought to roll back what they saw as overly powerful public-sector unions in hopes of reducing the cost of government, improving its performance, and weakening a key organizational supporter of progressive causes. Democrats fought these initiatives because they believe well-paid public workers are a bulwark of the middle class, and because public-sector unions are among the biggest contributors to the party and are deeply embedded in its network.

Between 2011 and 2018, more than a dozen states passed laws to constrain public-employee unions. These developments shook up the status quo in public-sector labor law, which had endured for 30 years. By the late 1970s, state laws provided the majority of the nation's public employees with collective-bargaining rights. These laws required government employers to negotiate with unions regarding pay, benefits, and working conditions. They also compelled nonmembers to pay fees to the union for its representation, and government employers to collect the dues and fees paid by workers in a bargaining unit.

Continue reading the entire piece here at National Affairs


Daniel DiSalvo is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a professor of political science at the City College Of New York (CUNY). Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images