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Public Sector Unions Research Paper

Pages:20 (7432 words)



Topic:Public Personnel Administration

Document Type:Research Paper


Public Sector Unions

Public-Sector Unions in United States










Labor unions are seen as the representatives of the labor employed in our industries and are known as the advocates of the labor's rights. Although labor unions are supposed to fight for the rights of the working class but whether it is performing the role assigned to it efficiently or not, is still a matter of question. America has a century long history of labor unions. The earlier part of the century showcases a violent attitude in the labor unions' activities which grew calmer in the later end. What made it change its perspective and how is labor union seen today by public and by government is a detailed subject to discuss.

Labor unions are the legal representatives of workers who are running the industries of unite states. There role requires them to do collective bargaining for the compensation provided to this labor, and also the working conditions under which the daily operations in the industry are performed. Also, in cases of disputes between workers and management, labor unions represent the workers. Same is the case when there is any violation in employment contract by the employer. These labor unions are affiliated with either of two major forums: afl-cio and the change to win federation (Lichtenstein, 2003). Both are responsible for devising policies and legislations ensuring the welfare of workers in us. They are also quite active in politics (Crampton, Hodge & Mishra, 2002). Furthermore, afl-cio is actively engaged in global politics pertaining to trade issues.

The unions which are playing a major role in protecting the rights of the workers are from public sector. A public-sector union is responsible for protecting the interests of employees in the organization which are owned or supported by government. Public sector unions are highly criticized by those who advocate the downsizing in the public sector as in most parts of the world, public owned organizations are claimed of being responsible for budget deficits. (Lichtenstein, 2003)

The labor history of trade unions goes back to 1900s. Public trade unions were not a very famous idea back then and were not supported by government as well. This was the reason why the then president Roosevelt opposed the existence of trade unions. Roosevelt once said:

All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations.

Public sector started gaining fame and attention in 1920s with the formation of unions of public school teachers started taking place in large cities of us. These unions later on, formed a unified board called American federation of teachers (aft). On, the other hands, a similar body appeared with the name national education association for smaller cities and suburbs.

The history of labor unions goes back to the nineteenth century in America. During this time, the dissatisfaction with many labor practices, including long work hours, poor working conditions, and lack of safety drew many workers to unions that formed a federation called the American federation of labor (afl). Led by samuel gompers and founded in 1881, the AFL grouped together trade unions across the nation. These unions represented everything from meat packers to engineers or carpenters. However, it would take another 70 years for the public sector employees to begin full-fledged unionization. Today, public sector unions are controversial for a number of reasons. Some people believe they promote out-of-control high salaries, much higher than private sector unions, and many contend pension costs are excessive, as well. However, many others believe that public sector unions promote more uniform salaries and pensions for jobs performed, and they can actually save the taxpayers' money in the long-term.

When trade unions first formed in the late nineteenth century, working conditions were very different from today, and that is one reason the unions formed in the first place. Working conditions were often harsh and unsafe. For example, sweatshops existed in many industries, such as the garment industry, where employers forced workers to work in the terrible conditions; often locked in buildings, for long hours, without breaks or safety standards. An infamous example is the triangle shirtwaist factory fire in 1911. Two-hundred-seventy-five women worked in the factory. They were just leaving the factory on the night of march 25 when a fire broke out. Many of the exit doors were locked (keeping the workers trapped inside), and many other doors opened inward, so the crowds of people trying to escape would not allow them to open. Fire escaped collapsed when the girls tried to use them, and girls as young as thirteen perished in the fire. All together, 146 women died in the fire. The working conditions in the factory came to be known to the general public; the owners of the factory faced trial, but were eventually acquitted. The fire led to an increased call out for labor unions to oversee working conditions, hours, and safety standards, along with higher wages that were fair and viable (Yaz, 2010). Labor unions began to grow after the fire, and they have continued to grow for decades.

While workers of private organizations were allowed to join unions, the public-sector employees were not allowed to unionize until the 1950s and 60s. There were some early union associations, the international association of fire fighters (IAFF), for example, began as a social and fraternal group in the late 1880s, but joined the AFL in 1918. That makes it the oldest non-educational public employees' union. Another example is the national teachers association (now NEA) formed in the early 1860s as a professional organization. The American federation of teachers (aft) formed in 1916, and many police unions began as social organizations around the same time as the firefighters formed their groups (Adler, 2006).

While those were some of the first strides toward representing public workers, there were some massive setbacks, as well. In 1919, the Boston police officers were affiliated with the AFL, but when they requested a meeting about wages and working conditions with the police commissioner, he refused, and as a result, 1,200 officers walked off the job. One historian noted, "the AFL had granted a charter to the Boston social club on the promise that they would never strike. All of the strikers were fired." (Adler, 2006). Due to this strike the police unions suffered dramatically for many years, the AFL refused to deal with them, and many people thought unions had caused the problems in police protection and public safety.

The director of the state civil service system, col. A.e. garey, formed the Wisconsin state administrative, clerical, fiscal and technical employees association to create unity among management and white-collar workers (Adler, 2006). They had several concerns about the incoming democratic administration and wanted to protect their merit system. The wafted changed the name to the Wisconsin state employees association (WSEA) which they used when they applied for, and received a charter from the AFL. They went on to establish employee associations in several other states, and by 1935, they became known as the American federation of state, county, and municipal employees, which remains one of the largest public sector unions today.

During the 1930's business owners believed that the higher wages which the unions called for helped stimulate the economy and boost business. Congress passed several progressive acts, and one of the most important ones was the national labor relations act (NLRA), commonly called the Wagner act. Essentially, it is still the framework that guides private unionism today, with some alterations. President Roosevelt signed it into law on July 5, 1935. What makes it extremely important is that it specifically excluded public workers from unionization (brown, 2010). It was not until the 1950s, when the very first public-sector employees were allowed to form their own unions.

In the 1940s and 50s, many public sector workers wanted to form their own unions, but a series of laws prohibited this from occurring. Brown states that, New York's condon-wadlin act (1947), prohibited strikes and did not explicitly affirm the right of public workers to collective bargaining. Throughout the immediate post-war period other states established similar statutes limiting the rights of public employees. In the late 1950s, New York became the first state to allow public employees to unionize. During this era people did not believe public workers should be able to strike or bargain because it would "undermine the government's sovereignty" (brown, 2010). In 1958, the New York governor signed an…

Sample Source(s) Used


Adler, J. (2006). A Word (or Two) about Public Sector Collective Bargaining. Public Personnel Management, 35(4), 261+. Retrieved May 11, 2012, from Questia database:

Belman, D., & Heywood, J., & Lund, J. (1997, July). Public sector earnings and the extent of unionization. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 50, # 4. Retrieved from:

Bennet, J. & Master, M.R. (2003). The future of public sector labor-management relations. Journal of Labor Relations, 24(2) 533-544.

Brown, K.C. (2010). Public-sector unions. Retrieved from the Monthly web-site:

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