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Barry Bluestone

A future for public unions?

By Barry Bluestone
July 18, 2009
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WHILE working my way through college in the 1960s on a Ford assembly line in Michigan, I was a proud member of the UAW. My union had 1.5 million members. Its economic clout helped provide excellent wages and benefits, and it was one of the most respected progressive forces in the nation fighting for universal healthcare, civil rights, and workforce training, and fighting against poverty. Its political clout helped boost the national minimum wage, legislation not directly benefiting its own well-paid members.

Today, the UAW has fewer than 465,000 members and its economic and political power is greatly diminished. Much of its decline is due to extraordinary blunders made by the auto companies that employ its members. Nonetheless, over the past two decades, the union often failed to take action to preserve the industry and therefore its own membership.

It failed to press the auto companies to build high-quality, innovative cars that could compete with imports. Often, it insisted on job classifications and work rules that undermined efficiency and compromised the industry’s competitiveness.

The UAW was not alone. Today, less than 14 percent of US workers are members of unions, down from 35 percent in 1955. With membership so low, private-sector unions have lost much of their power and the nation is losing a major force for progressive change.

Will public-sector unions follow the same path? Nationwide, these unions represent over 35 percent of federal, state, and local employees, roughly the same as in 1980. Over the years, they have won improved wages and benefits for their members. Yet the leaders of many of these unions, particularly in Massachusetts, seem to be setting the stage for the same kind of deterioration we see in unions like the UAW.

Teachers unions refuse to make changes in work practices that could help improve the chances of children succeeding in school. Police unions fight against lowering the cost of details at construction sites. The MBTA union and others representing transport workers lobby vociferously against reforming the state’s transportation system. Municipal unions refuse to permit their local communities to join the Group Insurance Commission that would save their towns millions without compromising the quality of their members’ medical care.

As a result, between 2000 and 2008, the price of state and local public services has increased by 41 percent nationally compared with 27 percent in private services. Even in the face of the worst fiscal crisis in decades, many state and local union leaders refuse to consider a wage freeze that could help preserve more of their members’ jobs.

Such action is rapidly losing the support public-sector unions need to survive. Union leaders may think that by working diligently to elect friendly public officials, they can fend off the day of reckoning. But that day is fast approaching. Citizens, and ultimately their elected representatives, will increasingly object to tax increases to pay for what they see as bloated union contracts and poor public service.

Sensing the public’s demand for reform, Governor Patrick and the Legislature have already passed pension and transportation measures opposed by union leaders, and Mayor Menino and Governor Patrick favor an expansion in the number of charter schools.

Ultimately, new ways will be found to provide public services to circumvent public unions. Non-union charter schools will proliferate, not to reduce teachers’ salaries or benefits but to avoid a plethora of work rules that make school reform difficult. Public services will be privatized with private contractors hired to pick up trash (in addition to recycling), to guard prisoners, and perhaps even to fight fires. Public highways may be sold off. The result: public-sector unions will see their memberships and their influence decline.

This will be a tragedy. To move in a different direction, we need to think about a new “grand bargain’’ between public-sector unions and government. Union leaders in the state need to consider ways to work collaboratively with public officials so as to offer quality public services at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer while preserving union jobs for their members.

Barry Bluestone is the dean of the School of Social Science, Urban Affairs, and Public Policy at Northeastern University.

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