Was recently listening to the journalists on Slate’s Political Gabfest pondering why union density is so much higher amongst public sector workers than the private sector. None of them mentioned the most important difference: It’s harder for a government to get away with running a terror campaign against the union.

There’s more oversight and accountability to restrain public sector management from threatening workers for union activity, implying benefits to keeping out the union or danger with it, holding captive audience meetings against the union, or just firing union leaders. Only some of these tactics are even illegal. And bosses get away with those all the time. (Check out this reportfrom Human Rights Watch, or this one from Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner). Consultants get very wealthy guiding companies on how to run fear campaigns against employees trying to organize. It’s a lot harder for the TSA to cut anti-union consultants a check than it is for Wal-Mart. When it comes to organizing, the fundamental difference between public sector and private sector workers is that public sector workers have a better chance at organizing free from fear. So lots and lots of public sector workers do.

Right-wingers’ desire to crush workers’ freedom to organize and bargain collectively, whether public sector or private, is old news. But the zeal with which newly elected right-wing politicians are going after public employees is based in a sense of opportunity – one that comes not just from high unemployment or the media’s deficit hysteria or GOP electoral gains but from the continuing decline in private sector union density. Republicans are emboldened to go after public sector workers organizing rights because so few private sector workers are organized.

(Resentment towards public sector workers can take on a gendered angle as well, as in some European countries where the public sector is significantly more female than the private sector, giving politicians an easy subtext to wield against public workers.)

If more private sector workers had the right to bargain for pensions, affordable healthcare, and a living wage, conservatives would see less purchase in high-profile fights to shred their rights and benefits for the janitors, firefighters, and teachers who work for us.

You see this in anecdotes like the one in a recent NYT piece where a woman says “I don’t get to bargain in my job, either.” This is the chutzpah of the Right: They erode the right for private sector workers to organize for a voice in the conditions of their work and their benefits on the job. They go after all the programs that help people to get jobs or provide protections that don’t depend on a job. They attack public education, deny us public healthcare, and deride public infrastructure. They push corporate-dominated “globalization” that privileges the flexibility of capital and further denies people around the world a voice in the conditions of their lives. They throw up barriers to the political participation of the non-rich. They enshrine the rights of bosses to fire without cause, outsource with impunity, escape taxes without consequence, punish pregnancy and lock workers inside buildings. Then, looking out across the wreckage they’ve created, they tell workers: “Why should that janitor be above the poverty line when your job sucks? Who do you know that has a pension these days?”

In other words, the push on those of us who reject the right-wing future, besides exposing their shell game, is to organize. We need to defend the human right to organize across industries, sectors and countries. And we need to strengthen it and exercise it. Goes without saying that Republican politicians have shown far more zeal about being part of the problem than Democratic ones have shown about being part of the solution.

There’s not much future for the American labor movement without turning around the decline in private sector union density. And there’s not much democracy if you spend half your waking life under dictatorship.



  1. Josh,

    Excellent post. I agree with you completely, but believe it’s worth discussing in any post about union organizing – especially in one delineating the difference between the private sector and the public sector – the reality of the globalized marketplace. Forgive me for not reading your earlier posts – I’m new to the blog – so you may very well have addressed this. Forgive me also for adding my two cents when I am a relative novice.

    What I find most chutzpahdik about the Republican attack campaign (which you did not highlight in your post) is that so many of the talking points offered by management in breaking up private sector unions is that in a globalized marketplace, American companies cannot afford the luxuries demanded by organized unions and at the same time keep the industry in America. There is some truth to this – it is a plain and simple fact that labor abroad is cheaper than labor here and labor laws abroad are either non-existent or easier to skirt. We can discuss the validity of the talking points and the benefits of a globalized economy another time.

    The point, though, is to expose the right’s chutzpah: that they dismantled private sector unions with the threat of outsourcing abroad and arguing that we needed to compete. Now, they’re going after public sector unions, but the same arguments for dismantling public sector unions don’t hold true! You can’t outsource the public sector abroad, so to argue that labor in the public sector should mirror labor in the private sector is absurd – even according to their own talking points.

    What really bothers me is that this is all part of a typical Republican strategy. The right drums up fear about something that is very real and then as the public reaches hysteria, they claim that advancing their long-held conservative beliefs is the solution, when it often is not, or, worse, only contributes to the problem itself. The patriot act didn’t make us any safer after 9/11 (in fact, it’s probably made us less safe), but the Republicans leveraged fear of another terrorist attack to guide the country towards a police state where minorities, indigants, and the poor would be marginalized. This is exactly the same thing: denying workers the ability to unionize won’t put a dent in the deficit (in Texas, none of the public sector is unionized and they’re facing horrible deficit problems), but the right wingers have effectively whipped the public into an hysteria over our debt problems to convince them that the fautl lies with labor.

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