Why Public Workers Need Labor Unions

Yesterday, on Facebook, one of my reactionary friends argued the tired argument that public sector workers shouldn’t be unionized because they are essentially organizing against the public, the tax-payer. This argument has been thrown around a lot lately (even citing FDR’s belief that public sector workers shouldn’t organize). It made me realize that no one has really taken up the challenge to discuss why public sector workers need the protection of the union.

Part, if not all, of this argument rests in the belief that the role of unions is to maximize wages and benefits for their members. This simply isn’t true. Unions are not parasites. They exist to protect workers (and ensure that workers receive fair compensation for their labor). I would argue that the primary role of a labor union is to ensure a safe, humane and equitable workplace. Yes, they are also going to help their members get a fair wage and benefit package. So far, everything that I have read, has correctly pointed out that WI pensions were deferred wages and that Wisconsin is right in the middle for pay and benefits.

When I was at University, I worked at the Wisconsin Union. Students workers were exempted from the state’s labor law in 1972 (as a reaction against the organizing of the teaching assistants, Wisconsin Union workers and workers at Gordon Commons). We kept our union even though we could not negotiate wages. We did negotiate working conditions. We made sure that our workers had a fair and equitable workplace even if the money wasn’t great. This allowed a number of people to work their way through school by using their seniority to arrange a full-time work schedule around a full-time class schedule. It also meant that discipline was handled in a uniform and fair manner as well.

That is really the point of public sector unions. They prevent petty tyrants from ruling their turf in the civil service system as if it were their fiefdom. It protects workers from the capricious acts of bad managers. It protects whistle blowers when they expose fraud and waste. It allows, as MULO did, the union to suggest more efficient ways of working. These stories need to get out.

Right before my time at Union South, a manager decided that she need to control her payroll. Her decision was to dock 15 minutes from everyone’s shift after they had worked their shifts. Management ignored complaints until the union stepped in.

When I was a steward, I helped workers everyday with disputes between management and even between workers. The role of a union goes far beyond wages.

Another myth worth dispelling is that unions allow workers to slack off. They don’t. Unions ensure that the disciplinary process is both fair and equitable. This means that a worker should only be disciplined for “just cause” not “just ‘cuz”. Management is the only group that can direct workers actions in the work place–if they allow laxity, that is there choice as long as all workers get treated the same.

Unions don’t defend “bad workers”, they defend a “fair process.” Tom Clearly, the former Personnel Manager of The Wisconsin Union once told me that he supported MULO because it helped on two issues: 1) stopped wild cat work stoppages–which was of concern given the 18-22 year olds who made up the work force and 2) helped him identify managers who either more needed training or needed to be removed. Labor unions do not stop managers from disciplining or firing workers, they only stop managers from acting unfairly or inequitably.

By removing collective bargaining from public workers, the state is opening upan era of favoritism, bribery and a host of other vices into the workplace.

I would ask those reading (especially those on Facebook) who are public employees to post a note (either here or on your page) on how you have seen your union improve your workplace, protect a fair and equitable workplace, or even simply defend you.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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4 Responses to Why Public Workers Need Labor Unions

  1. Thom Jackson says:

    I’ve worked in public sector for over a decade. All I ever saw was that the union employees were the least productive employees we had. Their first goal was to do as little work as possible because the union would protect their jobs. They had NO reason to work hard because their salaries were fixed by senority. Awful, wasteful system that does nothing but fatten the pockets of the union itself.

  2. This is another myth about labor unions. Labor Unions aren’t in charge of holding workers accountable. In fact, I believe that almost every collective bargaining agreement has a chapter entitled “Management Rights” which specifically give management the authority to discipline and fire workers who violated the rules. If the workers in your unit were not being disciplined, that it because you had incompetent management. Perhaps one of the managers was drinking buddies with one of the slackers? Since he let his friend get away with ignoring the rules, then he would have to let everyone get away it–that is fair and equitable treatment. The problem, in your situation, isn’t the union, it is management.

  3. Thom Jackson says:

    Sorry, but you are living the myth of what the contract says – not what actually happens. 90% of the union workers were slackers and nothing could be done about it. I’m not talking about hard rules violations like not showing up for work, but just being ineffective. Anytime a manager would even slightly say something, the union would scream.

    From all my experiences at those two places, union make less fair and equitable treatment not more. Non-union workers were getting screwed over by union co-workers.

    Ever since I’ve worked in non-union shops and seen that non-union is infinitely superior if you give a crap about doing a good job. If where I was started to unionize, I would quit immediately and go work somewhere else.

  4. Really, “90%” and what basis do you make that assertion? Sorry, it is the union’s duty to “scream” that is how they protect everyone. You want to excuse incompetent managers by blaming the union. If management allows featherbedding in the contract, then they should be held accountable by the stockholders. Labor Unions protect workers against same incompetent managers who allow workers to slack.

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