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February 08, 2005

Public Employee Bargaining Rights Under Attack

You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we over look the worth and significance of those who are not in the professional jobs, in the so called big jobs, but let me say to you tonight, that when ever you are engaged in work, that serves humanity, for the building of humanity it has dignity and it has worth." Dr. Martin Luther King, March 18, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee

With the repeal of public employee bargaining rights and contracts in the states of Missouri and Indiana last month, the American labor movement has taken a serious, but almost unnoticed body blow.

Public employee unionism has a comparatively short, but tragic history in the United States of America - even through the early years of the 21st century. Martin Luther King was gunned down in 1968 supporting the rights of a small garbage workers local in Memphis, Tennessee, and Ronald Reagan's defeat of PATCO in 1981 ushered in an era of anti-unionism that has continued unabated to the present day. And despite the heroism of public employees on 9/11, President Bush has successfully used national security arguments to abolish the organizing rights of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal employees. Bush is now even taking away basic civil service protections from DHS employees, with other agencies to follow.

As the director of AFSCME's health and safety program though the 1980's and 1990's I was often confronted with quips about how public employees' greatest safety threats must be paper cuts and falling off of office chairs. My revenge against those know-nothings was a long and detailed response, intimately describing the difficult, dangerous and low-paid work that the public employees of this country did to sustain its comfortable, but ignorant citizenry - highway workers laboring on the roads in the dead of night, mere inches away from speeding, hostile drivers; social service workers dealing with the "dregs" of society, doing their unpleasant work of protecting abused children and dysfunctional families alone in neighborhoods that the police were hesitant to enter armed and in pairs; dealing with undermedicated, neglected and often violent clients in social service offices that didn't have the resources to provide the assistance they needed; wading knee deep through asphyxiating raw sewage and rat-infested sewers; teaching in underfunded, crumbling inner-city schools; guarding the imprisoned refuse of society that most people didn't even want to think about except in stomach-churning movies; taking care of the mentally ill in understaffed, overcrowded mental health institutions - in other words, doing the jobs that this society demands to maintain the high standards that we take for granted.

In return for that work, public "servants" didn't even have the same right to organize unions or bargain collectively that private sector employees had enjoyed since the 1930's, nor the right to a safe workplace that private sector employees had enjoyed since 1971. And for all that, they were some of the lowest paid employees in the country, often eligible for welfare despite their full time jobs.

It was only relatively recently - in the 1960's -- that significant numbers of public employees in some states first earned the right to organize and form unions - "earned," meaning that this right was not bestowed upon them, but rather fought for and won - state by state, and sometimes city by city and county by county -- initially through illegal strikes, pickets and job actions, and later through political action. Public employees only received a 40 hour work week, pension and health care benefits and workers compensation years and sometimes decades after private sector employees - and not until they had organized into unions.

To this day, fewer than a dozen states have laws on the books that provide public employees with full collective bargaining rights. Other public employees only have rights through executive orders provided by sympathetic governors -- orders subject to repeal when a new governor is elected. Local employees often have to pass legislation city by city - legislation that can be rescinded if they aren't behaving properly. And even the rights they have are often not equivalent to private sector rights. Most don't have the right to strike, and others are limited in the areas they can bargain over. Federal employees, for example, cannot bargain over wages or benefits.

So it was particularly painful when the newly elected Republican governors of Indiana and Missouri recently rescinded public employee bargaining rights that had been provided by the executive orders of previous governors.

Jan 26 - In one of his first moves in office, newly elected Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana rescinded the rights of highway police, hospital attendants, mechanics and other state workers to collectively bargain for wage and hour increases, working conditions and other benefits.

On January 11, Daniels, a Republican and former Bush administration official, unilaterally eliminated the unionization rights and contracts of approximately 25,000 state employees, effectively shredding agreements that were set to last as late as 2007. Although Daniels' election campaign platform had addressed issues affecting state employees in detail, it made no note of any intention to drastically alter labor arrangements for some two-thirds of the state's government workforce.

I had worked in Indiana before the before Governor Evan Bayh issued the executive order giving Indiana public employees collective bargaining rights. I missed most of the 1990 Indiana organizing campaign (my wife was in the late stages of pregnancy with our third), but I was present during the opening stages of the campaign when Indiana public employees testified about their difficult working conditions, pitifully low pay and - most important - lack of respect from their supervisors.

Following the campaign (which had degenerated into an expensive, fratricidal shootout between AFSCME, the UAW and AFT), I returned to Indiana many times, working with the social service workers that we represented to organize programs protecting them against workplace violence and communicable diseases, and with city public works employees to force their employers to comply with confined space and trenching hazards. Things had improved noticeably. As Indiana AFSCME Executive Director David Warrick says:

Union contracts have greatly changed the workplace for state employees. Since 1990, when then Indiana Governor Evan Bayh issued an Executive Order to create collective bargaining rights for state employees, the International Union of Police Associations and AFSCME, along with an alliance between the American Federation of Teachers and the United Auto Workers called the Unity Team, helped employees access their vacation time, establish seniority rights, gain access to job training and additional education, and achieve some of the highest wage increases in the nation. Some workers saw as much as a 20 percent pay increase in one year.

"Before [Bayh's Executive Order], management and labor were always bumping heads. The atmosphere was just horrible," says Warrick. "The biggest notable change has been that the us versus them attitudes had just eroded away, and we had gotten to a place where we worked together for common goals."

But beyond the pay raises, the due-process guarantees and the improved safety conditions, the most vivid memory I have is the almost palpable sense of dignity that Indiana public employees had gained -- that management had to address them as equals, had to provide due process -- along with the assurance that they they had the union to fight for them.

Daniels clearly doesn't see the point of unions. Or perhaps he sees their value too well:

"The Governor is committed to improving state service and to providing due process to employees," Jane Jankowski, a spokesperson for Gov. Daniels, told TNS. "He thinks he can do both at the same time."

Critics say that is unlikely: without bargaining power, workers will have little leverage. Although the governor has given workers the right to appeal firings, demotions and unpaid suspensions to the State Employees' Appeals Commission, workers' advocates consider the appeals process an insignificant source of hope. The Commission is a five-member board appointed by the governor, and in the past it has only overturned two percent of management decisions in favor of employees.

The bottom line is that public employees remain second class citizens in this country. As bad as things are in the labor movement, the most anti-labor Republican would not consider repealing the legal right of private sector workers to organize and bargain -- yet. But somehow it's OK to take away public employees' rights - in the name of government efficiency or flexibility or in the name of national security.

But make no mistake. If they can continue to get away with taking away some employees rights, the rest of our rights may not be far behind.


They were tired, beaten men, making a struggle that before they died they would stand up and be men.

-- Jerry Wurf (AFSCME President, 1964 - 1991), Memphis, 1968

More here.

Posted by Jordan Barab at February 8, 2005 12:47 AM