Public unions: What’s the big deal?

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On Jan. 17, 1962, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, bringing collective bargaining rights to most federal workers for the first time. Kennedy’s order might be the least known of the string of significant events that made the 1960s such crucial years in American history. 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.

Over the course of the last 30 years, however, bipartisan support for public sector bargaining has eroded. And it was Reagan’s breaking of the 1981 strike by PATCO, the union of air traffic controllers, that contributed to this shift. More recently, Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 cited that action as an inspiration for his effort to strip government workers of bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Yet in his day Reagan never went as far as Walker. In the PATCO case (and in other negotiations), he never challenged government workers’ rights to bargain, only their right to strike illegally.


Lately, critics of public sector unions are fond of alleging that Kennedy’s extension of union rights to government was a mistake. They claim that collective bargaining by government is responsible for today’s budget deficits; that public sector unions, in league with allies in the Democratic Party, are lining the pockets of their members at taxpayers’ expense.

The facts don’t support these allegations. There is little correlation between states that have public sector collective bargaining and states with large deficits. North Carolina, which lacks collective bargaining, projects a 10% budget shortfall for fiscal year 2013, nearly three times as great as that of New York (3.5%), the most densely unionized state. Nor is it the case that Democratic politicians simply pass out goodies to labor allies, the taxpayers be damned. Just ask unions in New York and California. They have complained loudly about their treatment at the hands of Democratic governors Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown.

If the reality of public sector collective bargaining belies the scaremongering of anti-unionists, so too does the history of Kennedy’s executive order itself. It was scarcely the sop to the union movement that some critics argued at the time and continue to believe today. The order instead fell far short of what the union movement wanted, and it headed off a more union-friendly law that Congress was set to consider when Kennedy took office.

That bill would have given federal workers robust bargaining rights, including the right to negotiate over pay and benefits. Kennedy and his advisors sought to sidetrack that initiative by proposing a far more modest approach. Kennedy’s order did not grant federal workers the right to bargain over pay. Ironically, his order was so incremental that the words “collective” and “bargaining” never appeared in it. Labor did not love it, but most government workers welcomed the order as a sign that their voices would no longer be ignored.

Reviewing the history of the last 50 years gives the lie to those who have persistently argued that public sector collective bargaining inevitably corrupts the political system. No such debasement has occurred. Rather than serving as an instrument of plunder, public sector collective bargaining has proved to be a bulwark of an important sector of the American middle class.

History also makes clear how partisan our labor politics have become and how anti-union today’s Republican political leaders are in comparison to the man to whom they would like to be compared, the onetime union leader (as president of the Screen Actors Guild) Ronald Reagan. The Gipper was no fan of Kennedy; he rejected Kennedy’s liberalism, which he felt might lead to something worse. “Under the tousled boyish haircut” of the young president, Reagan once worried, was “still old Karl Marx.” But Reagan’s position on workers’ rights to bargain was closer to Kennedy’s than to the one promoted by Scott Walker and other conservatives today. Much indeed has changed over the last half-century.


Joseph A. McCartin teaches history at Georgetown University and is the author of “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.”