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date: 13 October 2019

Public Sector Unionism

Summary and Keywords

Government employees are an essential part of the early-21st-century labor movement in the United States. Teachers, firefighters, and police officers are among the most heavily unionized occupations in America, but public-sector union members also include street cleaners and nurses, janitors and librarians, zookeepers and engineers. Despite cultural stereotypes that continue to associate unions with steel or auto workers, public employees are five times more likely to be members of unions than workers in private industry. Today, nearly half of all union members work for federal, state, or local governments.

It was not always so. Despite a long, rich history of workplace and ballot box activism, government workers were marginal to the broader labor movement until the second half of the 20th century. Excluded from the legal breakthroughs that reshaped American industry in the 1930s, government workers lacked the basic organizing and bargaining rights extended to their private-sector counterparts. A complicated, and sometimes convoluted, combination of discourse and doctrine held that government employees were, as union leader Jerry Wurf later put it, a “servant to a master” rather than “a worker with a boss.” Inspired by the material success of workers in mass industry and moved by the moral clarity of the Black Freedom struggle, government workers demanded an end to their second-class status through one of the most consequential, and least recognized, social movements of late 20th century. Yet their success at improving the pay, benefits, and conditions of government work also increased the cost of government services, imposing new obligations at a time of dramatic change in the global economy. In the resulting crunch, unionized public workers came under political pressure, particularly from fiscal conservatives who charged that their bargaining rights and political power were incompatible with a new age of austerity and limits.

Keywords: public sector, government employees, unions, labor movement, strikes, collective bargaining, civil rights movement, tax revolt

Origins of Public Sector Unionism in the 19th Century

Though often regarded as a product of the postwar era, the origins of public-sector unionism stretch back to the working-class movements of early 19th century. In 1835, skilled craftsmen and mechanics in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore began lobbying the navy for reduced hours in the booming shipbuilding industry.1 The Board of Navy Commissioners refused, and Congress declined to take action, but President Andrew Jackson ordered the navy department to implement the ten-hour day in those cities in which private shipbuilders had already granted it. In 1840, Martin Van Buren issued an executive order mandating a ten-hour day for manual laborers in the federal government.2 Almost immediately thereafter, workmen in the federal shipbuilding industry began lobbying for the eight-hour day. In 1861, Congress passed a prevailing wage and hour law for navy projects.

These mid-century developments enshrined two critical but sometimes contradictory principles in public-sector labor relations: first, that workers employed in government enterprises should be paid according to the wages and hours prevailing in the private sector; and second, that government could serve as a model employer for private business. Over the next century and a half, government workers would strategically invoke one or the other, demanding either parity with their private-sector peers or that the state serve as a means of lifting the wages, hours, and conditions of the broader working class.

Through much of the 19th century, however, political agitation, not workplace action, proved the most effective vehicle for this agenda. This was particularly true for municipal workers, whose ranks swelled alongside urban growth in the second half of the 20th century. Though transactional hiring (trading votes for jobs or other favors) had long been a fixture of urban politics, it took on an increasingly important role as city governments expanded to meet the demands of an emerging urban-industrial society filled by a broadening range of racial, ethnic, and national identities. “If the Knights of Labor wanted to secure an advantage for any member,” labor economist and pioneering labor historian John R. Commons wrote of New York City, “they went to the Tammany politician, who went to the commissioner of street cleaning, or to the mayor, and secured the desired promotion, or relaxation of discipline or release from punishment.”3

The emergence of the urban political machine had crucial but contradictory implications for public workers. On the one hand, it delegitimized their political participation and spurred legislative and executive action to curb it. The notion that government employment was fundamentally different from private business first took hold in the late 19th century in response to political agitation in the postal service. As early as 1895, Postmaster General William Wilson issued an order that bared employees of the U.S. Post Office from traveling to the nation’s capital “for the purposes of influencing legislation before Congress.”4 President Theodore Roosevelt extended the restriction in 1902, instituting a “gag rule” that prohibited any federal employee from individually or collectively lobbying for legislation.5 Taken to its logical conclusion, this outlook cast public employment as fundamentally different from private business. As President William Howard Taft stated in 1911, “The Government employees are a privileged class whose work is necessary to carry on the Government and upon whose entry into the Government service it is entirely reasonable to impose conditions that should not be and ought not be imposed upon those who serve private employers.”6 At its most extreme, this view prompted proposals to disfranchise government employees from municipal elections.7

On the other hand, fear of machine-driven political corruption encouraged some reformers to experiment with the application of elements of traditional labor relations to government employment. The first sustained experiment with an anti-machine approach to worker organization came in 1895, when New York City sanitation commissioner George E. Waring Jr. replaced a decentralized patronage network with a hierarchical employee organization empowered to bring democratically approved grievances to a joint committee of worker representatives and administration superintendents.8 Summarizing the findings of a study of two dozen cities in Great Britain and the United States in 1913, Commons insisted that, contrary to the objections of elected officials, “a proper organization of public employees … is a protection for the service against one of the greatest evils by which public employment is menaced in democratic communities; namely, the interference of the politician.”9 Few Progressive reformers were so committed to democratizing government employment by empowering its employees, but the breakthroughs set the stage for the reemergence of public-sector labor in the 20th century.

Public-Sector Unions from the Progressive Era to World War I

By even partially insulating public employment from patronage politics, civil-service protections encouraged public workers to regard their jobs as permanent, and thus to invest much more energy and activity in improving pay, hours, and conditions. This was initially clearest in the federal postal service, where a bona fide trade-union movement took root in the last decades of the 19th century. Protesting everything from low pay and long hours to employer surveillance and political manipulation of delivery routes, postal workers organized both in independent associations and with the Knights of Labor. In response, postal administrators imposed a “gag rule” that attempted to prohibit workers from lobbying Congress. When that failed to stall employee activism, the postal service attempted to bar membership in any secret society or organization. Though incompletely enforced, the anti-union moves slowed the spread of formal, open workplace organization in the postal service.10

The first genuine teacher organizations were born in the last decades of the 19th century in response to attempts by Progressive reformers to bring local schools under the control of a single superintendent and school board and to formalize the certification system. Classroom educators challenged these reform plans and, in so doing, formed the foundation for the first teachers’ union. The Chicago Teachers’ Federation (CFT), formed in 1897 and led by Margaret Haley, was the first educational association specifically designed to represent the interests of classroom teachers. It focused on three core economic issues: salary increases, pension systems, and job tenure. In the era before public-sector collective bargaining, the CFT pursued its agenda through political alliances and lobbying. After failing to transform the administrator-dominated National Education Association into a genuine teachers’ organization, the CFT teamed with locals from other Midwestern cities to form the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1916.11

The formation of the AFT reflected the broader labor movement’s growing interest in and commitment to organizing in government employment. In 1905, Chicago’s Electricity Department signed the first contract with a public-employee organization. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) chartered its first government union the next year, when it created the National Federation of Post Office Clerks. The Lloyd-LaFollette Act of 1912, which repealed the “gag rule” by recognizing the constitutional right of federal workers to organize and petition Congress, legitimized collective organization in the public sector and helped to inspire a wave of organizing in the years around World War I. Previously independent organizations like the National Association of Letter Carriers and Railway Mail Carriers affiliated with the AFL, while teachers, firefighters, and police flocked to AFL unions. Considering both rising union density and the growth of government at all levels, the total number of unionized public workers more than doubled between 1915 and 1921.12

Yet this dramatic expansion proved, in historian Joseph E. Slater’s phrase, a “false dawn” for public-sector unionism. The critical turning point was the Boston police strike of September 1919. The AFL had long been suspicious of police unionism, in part because of the role police had played in violently suppressing working-class movements in the late 19th century.13 Faced with an ever-increasing flood of applications, however, the AFL convention reversed its traditional opposition to police unions in June 1919. The response was dramatic. Over the next three months, the AFL received more than sixty applications and chartered three dozen police locals.14 Government officials, fearing that unionized police might refuse to break stoppages by private-sector workers, fiercely resisted attempts to affiliate with the broader labor movement even when those organizations specifically renounced the right to strike.

These tensions came to a head in Boston during the late summer of 1919. Following a string of successful strikes by city firefighters and engineers and buoyed by a supportive statement from local private-sector unions, the Boston Police Union (BPU) considered affiliation with the AFL. In response, police commissioner Edwin Curtis issued Rule 102, stating his own position that “a police office cannot consistently belong to a union and perform his sworn duty” and that “his work is sharply differentiated from that of the worker in private employ.”15 Ten days later, citing low wages, long hours, arbitrary bosses, unhealthy working conditions, and the ineffectiveness of the department-sponsored Boston Social Club, the BPU filed its application. Curtis issued another order formally barring officers from membership in any organization with an outside affiliation. When the officers affiliated anyway, Curtis suspended nineteen suspected leaders for violating his personnel policy. In response, nearly three-quarters of Boston’s 1,500 uniformed officers struck on September 9.16 Substitutes failed to maintain order in the city, which descended into chaos. When Curtis proved unable to garner sufficient replacements for the striking officers, Governor Calvin Coolidge dispatched five thousand Massachusetts National Guard to quell the strike, justifying the decision in the simplest terms: “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” In the context of the First Red Scare and a wave of private-sector militancy, public sympathy swung to Coolidge, who rode his handling of the strike to the Republican Party’s nomination as vice president the following year.17

Breaking the 1919 Boston Police Union strike was a critical moment in the history of public-sector unionism. The AFL retreated from its commitment to police unions and the thirty-seven locals it had already chartered collapsed within a few years. Though police continued to organize in the decades that followed, they remained largely outside the formal labor movement until the late 1960s. Fearing for their own future, other public-sector unions immediately adopted or reaffirmed no-strike pledges, a practice that also persisted well into the postwar era. Though public sector union membership continued to increase through the 1920s, it barely managed to keep up with the growth of government as a whole.

More importantly, Coolidge’s intervention in the strike—widely praised and supported by both the country’s newspapers and political leaders—was critical in legitimizing the notion that government employees, particularly those in the protective services, were fundamentally different from private-sector workers. Though the initial reaction to the Boston strike had focused on the threat posed by police stoppages to public safety, in the decades that followed, it evolved into an objection that formal union recognition of any group of public employees constituted an illegitimate encroachment on the sovereignty of the state. Yet despite the widely held notion that, as Sterling Spero put it, public-sector unionism was “subversive of discipline and dangerous to the state” and strikes were “an act of insubordination hardly short of treason,” government workers continued to organize through the age of legal uncertainty.18

Organizing the State in an Age of Legal Uncertainty

Independent civil-service associations were the focal point of collective action in state and local government from the conclusion of the Boston police strike through the mid-1930s. Rarely challenging the marginal legal status afforded to public employees, organizations like New York City’s Civil Service Forum explicitly eschewed both militant tactics and “impertinent demands” in favor of a much more modest and cooperative agenda and educational activity.19 The economic turmoil of the 1930s strained these relationships while incubating new demands among rank-and-file workers. The Great Depression eviscerated the fiscal base of state and local governments, curtailing resources at the very moment when demand for services, particularly schools and public welfare, rose to unprecedented levels.

First evident in militant demonstrations against late and low pay, labor unrest swept through every level of government during the decade. Roosevelt triggered an outburst of militancy when he signed the Economy Act during the first hundred days. Building on a similar piece of legislation passed under Hoover, the Economy Act reduced salaries and imposed furloughs.20 The federal-employee unions that had survived through the 1920s reacted with predictable outrage. Wrapping their critique in the language of patriotic self-sacrifice, union leaders like the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) Luther C. Steward pleaded that such acts were both counterproductive and hypocritical, given the administration’s interest in putting a floor under workers’ wages (and thus consumption).

Beyond simple austerity, civil-service workers chafed at the growing gap between Roosevelt’s championing of private-sector labor rights and insistence on paternalism at the public workplace. The New Deal unleashed expectations for workers in government that it was unprepared to fulfill. Government employees were explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and, originally, the Social Security Act. While a small group within Roosevelt’s inner circle favored the extension of full organizing and bargaining rights to federal workers and the creation of a public-sector counterpart to the National Labor Relations Board, the proposal was stripped out of the reorganization bill prior to its submission to Congress.21 In a now widely cited 1937 letter, Roosevelt himself spoke to both sides of the issue. Writing to Steward, he famously declared that strikes by public workers amounted to “the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it” and accordingly deemed them both “unthinkable and intolerable.” Yet in the very same letter, Roosevelt recognized that “the desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry.”22 The absence of either a Congressionally defined policy or a clear, singular message from Roosevelt left much of the practical working out to agency administrators and unions and gave the New Deal public-sector labor regime a chaotic, fragmented quality.

By demanding meaningful participation on matters of pay, promotions, and grievance procedures, New Deal civil servants strengthened links between government and industrial workers that had been strained by the backlash against Boston. Much of the energy came from rank-and-file workers, who showed far less caution than their leaders.23 When the relatively conservative leadership of AFL federal employee unions refused to support a more rigorous form of bilateral negotiation, some locals defected to the United Federal Workers of America, an affiliate of the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). These newer organizations proved far less willing to accept managerial prerogatives in exchange for administrative paternalism—what Rung calls a “social covenant” at the government workplace—and laid the foundation for a more militant form of unionism in the public sector.24

At the federal level, this was clearest in Works Progress Administration (WPA). Protesting grievances that ranged from prevailing rates of pay and hours to the failure of local governments to deliver paychecks and the removal of arbitrary supervisors and foremen, workers staged a staggering six hundred strikes between 1935 and 1937.25 Following legal and political precedent, the Roosevelt and WPA chief Harry Hopkins initially struck a position of defiant resistance, but persistent militancy and political concerns eventually forced the administration into a much more complicated position. In November 1935, Hopkins issued an order, later codified in the official program handbook, that recognized the right of WPA workers “to organize and act collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”26 Though the order stopped short of the formal bargaining established in the Tennessee Valley Authority, it paved the way for an informal pattern of negotiation that reduced hours and weakened the power of job foremen in the later years of the program.27

While Depression-era militancy often focused in either short-term relief programs or the New Deal’s expanding bureaucracy, it also penetrated state and local government. Organized police and firefighters, the two groups that had suffered the most direct backlash after Boston, both made modest gains during the 1930s. The International Association of Firefighters won repeal of a federal statute making it illegal for the firemen of Washington, DC, to affiliate with outside labor organizations in 1939. Police unions, which had predictably suffered the most dramatic decline after Boston, revived in the late 1930s. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), founded in 1932 to defend the civil service system in Wisconsin against the reinstitution of patronage politics, chartered its first local of police officers in 1937. By the end of World War II, it had at least three dozen locals organized nationally. Enduring a disastrous combination of rising unemployment, falling pay, and increased classroom enrollments, teachers launched strikes and demonstrations in cities like Chicago, sometimes joined by their pupils.28 The economic crisis also mobilized workers in newer areas of the public sector. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began organizing public sector janitorial staff in 1918 and by the end of the 1930s had perhaps 25,000 members in schools, hospitals, and other government buildings.29

Formally, nearly every union initially retained a prohibition on strikes. Issuing a charter to the State, County and Municipal Workers of America in 1937, CIO-founder John L. Lewis declared that strikes and picketing by government employees were contrary to CIO policy and that the chief tools of public-sector unions were “legislation and education.”30 Yet by the early 1940s, even this concession began to give way to a more assertive set of demands. As AFSCME’s founding president, Arnold Zander, stated in 1940, “it is one thing to state a policy against strikes, but it is quite a different thing to keep men at work when they are treated as miserably as they are in some public agencies.”31 For its part, the CIO adopted a more ambitious demand for equal rights for public- and private-sector workers because they feared that the expansion of government into previously private realms (utilities and transportation) would undermine the wages and benefits of private-sector workers.32

The wartime context interrupted this growing momentum toward a convergence of public- and private-sector labor law, even as it pushed administrators to adopt some of the practices of the emerging human-relations school of labor management. Wrapped in the rhetoric of a struggle for both democracy and efficiency, public administrators implemented various programs designed to promote loyalty, ensure productivity, and insulate the civil service from radical political challenges.

The new political climate was particularly stifling for African Americans and women in government, whose ranks grew as white men left the civil service for better-paying industrial jobs or military service, but who lacked the political clout to make use of traditional lobbying. Women’s share of the federal workforce more than doubled between 1941 and 1944, but these gains did not coincide with widespread advancement up the civil-service hierarchy. As Margaret Rung has shown, administrators seized on “psychological paternalism” who appropriated pseudo-scientific rhetoric to blunt women’s demands for promotion, claiming women were “naturally” ill prepared for greater authority or more complicated tasks.33 Despite composing 47 percent of the DC-area federal workforce and holding 24 percent of all federal jobs by 1947, women occupied just 3 percent of managerial and policy-making positions.34 African Americans found their advancement options similarly limited, particularly when it came to jobs that put them in a supervisory position over white women. Unrelenting pressure from civil-rights groups, labor unions, and black civil servants eventually pushed Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in 1941, creating a Fair Employment Practices Committee and charging it with policing racial discrimination in both government contractors and the federal government. However, bureaucratic structure, interagency politics, and resilient racism limited the actual effect of the new policy. In both cases, unions lobbied for a more stringent, structural correction to racial and gender discrimination at the federal workplace, but lacked the legal standing to directly challenge the practices.35

Faced with ideological and jurisdictional challenges, union organizers gained only limited ground in the 1940s. In the decades that followed, however, their critique of the civil service evolved into a broader challenge to managerial authority at the government workplace.36

Postwar Growth of Public Sector Unions

As in the 1930s, the lack of legal rights did little to mitigate the militancy of public workers. Driven by a widening gap in both material rewards and legal rights, a diverse range of public employees challenged local and state governments during the early postwar era. The CIO’s United Public Workers of America (UPWA), formed through a merger of the federal, state, and local CIO unions, launched an ambitious organizing drive among low-wage public employees in the South. Unions like AFSCME expanded their operations in Philadelphia and New York, and other northern cities.37 There were at least forty-three strikes by public employees in 1946 alone. By 1947, more than 600,000 public workers belonged to a labor union—approximately 10 percent of the total workforce of federal, state, and local governments. Yet these were modest gains compared to the dramatic expansion that would come over the three decades that followed.

If the wartime no-strike pledge had temporarily mitigated the most controversial aspect of public employment, the postwar strike wave reintroduced it.38 The backlash against public worker militancy was dramatic. At the federal level, a 1946 appropriation bill required federal employees to sign an affidavit declaring their opposition to and lack of membership in any organization that asserted the right to strike, and the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) specifically extended the restriction against strikes to federal workers. In 1955, Public Law 330 simply asserted that the right to strike was made a felony offense. Nine states and many more cities adopted draconian anti-strike laws in 1946 or 1947. The restrictions transcended the strike issue. Citing the need to protect both national security and public order, public-sector union activists were targeted for expulsion from the federal workforce. The Hatch Act of 1939, which reintroduced restrictions on the political activities and affiliations of federal employees, was expansively interpreted during the early postwar era to allow for the dismissal of any worker deemed to be of dubious loyalty, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities launched investigations into some of the most progressive federal unions. In 1947, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9835, requiring an extensive investigation into the personal and political background of millions of federal workers.

In the short term, the backlash certainly stalled the momentum of the early postwar era. The UPWA, which had surged to more than 100,000 members nationally by end of the 1940s, came under repeated attacks for its open embrace of the Communist Party. The purges cost public-sector unions some of their most effective organizers and hastened the collapse of the UPWA, though many of the constituent locals eventually found their way into other organizations.39 The judiciary offered little protection for public-sector activists, as courts routinely approved restrictions passed by state and local governments.40

Yet despite the restrictions of the early postwar era, public-sector labor relations underwent a slow but crucial transformation during the 1950s and 1960s. By culling some of the most outspoken radicals, the postwar backlash may have insulated the remaining public-sector labor movement from the worst effects of anticommunism. Though industrial-relations specialists continued to insist on the uniqueness of the government environment, they increasingly recognized that the basic concerns of public workers differed little form their private-sector counterparts.41 The widespread adoption of routinized collective bargaining in the private sector helped insulate unionization of its more radical connotations.42 The American Civil Liberties Union and American Bar Association both issued statements in support of labor rights for public workers during the decade, while cities like Philadelphia and New York experimented with moves to bargain with their employees. After a decade of intense lobbying by AFSCME, Wisconsin passed the country’s first general statutory protections in 1959.43 Drawing on these examples and bowing to mounting pressure from federal workers and labor allies, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988 in 1962, extending limited bargaining rights to some federal employees.44 Over the next decade, sixteen states followed, and by 1975, thirty-six states allowed collective bargaining for at least some groups of public workers.

In all but a few cases, public employees continued to lack some of basic rights recognized in the private sector. Moreover, because of limits of constitutional power and political structure, public-sector unions relied on a complex combination of negotiation and lobbying to address both bread-and-butter concerns and workplace grievances. But within these limits, the legislative breakthroughs nevertheless amounted to a revolution in public-sector labor relations.

The changing legal environment both was created by and in turn propelled one of the most important yet least recognized social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, namely, the emergence of public-sector unionism as a crucial force within the labor movement and liberal politics. In cities like New York, public workers became essential parts of a coalition that pressed for a miniature social democratic society.45 As state and local government continued to expand, it drew in increasing numbers of minority and female employees.46 Unions like AFSCME and SEIU thrived in part because they embraced an agenda that stressed equity and dignity at the workplace as part of a broader struggle against “second class citizenship.” After abandoning its earlier focus on winning civil-service protections, AFSCME became the fastest-growing union in the country by the 1970s. It fused its organizational agenda with an explicit link to the Black Freedom struggle, particularly in and after the 1968 strike by Memphis sanitation workers and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.47 Left-leaning teachers unions in organizations like the New York Teachers Union pushed for an inclusive curriculum as well as bread-and-butter benefits. More broadly, public-sector unionism helped to lift the wages and benefits of minority and female public workers at a time when many cities were hemorrhaging higher-paying factory jobs, and thus mitigated, albeit to a limited degree, the impact of deindustrialization.48 Between 1955 and 1975, the number of unionized public employees grew ten-fold, to more than four million.

Though continuing to use lobbying and political activity, public-sector unions increasingly resorted to strikes to achieve their ends, despite the almost universal illegality of the practice. State and local government stoppages grew more than ten-fold between 1959 and 1969.49 Some 200,000 postal workers used an illegal strike to secure significance concessions from the postal service in 1970.50 Weeks later, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) followed suit. Teachers became perhaps the most militant of any group of workers, public or private, during the 1970s, pushing long-docile organizations like the NEA to embrace many of the strategies and tactics of trade unions.51 The extension of bargaining rights reflected and in turn validated a militant mood among state and local government workers. Unions like AFSCME became increasingly aggressive in pushing for the right to strike, casting it as a central component of the negotiating process.52 By the early 1970s, church groups, private-sector unions, labor arbiters, and a handful of jurists voiced growing support for the right of at least some public workers to strike.

This mounting militancy sometimes tested and even frayed the alliances previously forged with the Black Freedom movement. In both Ocean Hill-Brownsville (1968) and Newark (1970), mostly white teachers’ demands for autonomy in the classroom proved explosively incompatible with the African American parents’ insistence on greater community control.53 Strikes also sometimes revealed class-based tensions within the African American community. In 1977, African American sanitation workers in Atlanta found little support among the city’s black middle class (including Martin Luther King Sr.) in their standoff with Mayor Maynard Jackson.54 The unionization of police and prison guards and attendant rise of the carceral state, meaning the rising numbers of Americans, especially minorities, imprisoned after criminal convictions, posed its own challenges to the public-sector brand of civil-rights unionism, particularly following the bloody uprising at Attica in 1971.55 More generally, as Jon Shelton has noted, strikes by public employees (and teachers in particular) served as “crisis points” that forced individuals to reevaluate their assumptions about the role of unions in a liberal-left coalition already in crisis.56

Reaction and Crisis in the Late 20th Century

Public-sector union power peaked at an inopportune moment. The long postwar economic boom had slowed and then stopped in the early 1970s, but it spiraled into crisis in during the summer of 1975, when unemployment and inflation surged to 8.5 and 9.1 percent, respectively. As economists and policymakers struggled to make sense of the new phenomenon of “stagflation,” state and local governments coped with growing deficits and mounting militancy from public-sector workers. Public employers took a harder line, demanding concessions, furloughing employees, leaving vacant positions unfilled, and canceling or delaying raises. Squeezed by soaring costs and lagging wages, public workers’ response was predictable. The number of strikes jumped to 478 in 1975, and the wave of militancy continued through 1978.

The new fiscal climate altered the politics of taxes and public services and transformed the landscape of public-sector labor relations. It undercut a near decade-long effort to secure a federal collective bargaining law for state and local government employees, leaving public-sector labor relations under the fragmented jurisdiction of fifty states (and countless local and municipal governments), many of which never legalized bargaining.57 Conservative critics of the public-sector labor movement, many of whom had long ties with the National Right to Work Committee and other anti-labor groups, seized on the new climate to reintroduce challenges to the basic legitimacy of public-sector collective bargaining. The near bankruptcy of New York City (averted, notably, by the willingness of the city’s public unions to use retirement funds to cover the city’s shortfall) seemed to validate their charges.58 Officials in city after city took a hard line against employee raises, claiming it necessary to prevent their town from becoming “another Big Apple.”59 Declining public support emboldened employers to break strikes by hiring replacement workers, blunting the effectiveness of the direct-action tactics that had propelled the growth of the movement over the previous decade.60 In the years that followed, activists like Howard Jarvis seized on public sector workers’ pay and benefits in pushing tax-cutting proposals like California’s Proposition 13.

Ronald Reagan’s move to fire 11,000 highly trained air-traffic controllers participating in PATCO’s illegal 1981 strike dramatically underscored the limits of public-sector labor legitimacy. It foreshadowed the way in which public and private sector labor relations grew increasingly entangled in the last decades of the 20th century. After 1981, as Joseph McCartin has shown, private employers became far more willing to hire permanent replacements for striking workers, resulting in a precipitous decline in private-sector strikes by century’s end.61 That declining militancy combined with the increasing willingness of employers to illegally fire union organizers, and the general pressures associated with automation and off-shoring decimated the private-sector labor movement in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Public employees were not fully immune to these pressures. The emergence of taxes as a crucial issue in local, state, and national politics during the 1970s encouraged elected officials to take a harder line against union demands. Privatization and contracting-out of government services became increasingly popular after the 1970s, as state and local officials sought cheaper and more pliable alternatives to unionized government workplaces. In more recent decades, reformers have touted non-union charter-school and private-voucher programs as paths to improving public education.

Yet public-sector unions proved far more resilient than their private sector counterparts, in terms of both the size of their membership and their capacity to protect hard-won gains. In a harsher political environment, unions like AFSCME pioneered new bargaining practices like comparable worth, which provided a means of boosting the pay and benefits of an increasingly feminized workforce above and beyond general raises.62 More broadly, public-sector unions proved far more effective at protecting their traditional defined-benefit pensions from erosion to defined-contribution pension systems like 401ks.

Beyond simply holding ground, public-sector unions continued to expand the boundaries of the traditional labor movement. SEIU and AFSCME successfully supported organizing drives by home health and child-care workers, one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy. When more than 70,000 homecare workers in Los Angeles County captured national headlines by voting to join SEIU in early 1999, it was the largest successful union organizing drive since the Great Depression. These campaigns continued into the first decade of the 21st century, as hundreds of thousands of home, health, and childcare workers, disproportionately African American, Latina, and immigrant women, successfully overcame legal and political obstacles to form unions, often by working closely with community groups and their clients.63 In part because of these successes, roughly half of all union members worked for federal, state, or local government by 2010.

Yet even as public-sector unions reached this newfound status, they came under fierce attack. Amid growing economic and social inequality and unprecedented power for corporate capital, organized government workers emerged as a visible, easy scapegoat for anxious taxpayers and desperate politicians. Though evident as early as the George W. Bush administration’s tangle with TSA agents over unionization in the context of the War on Terror, it burst onto the national scene with the onset of the Great Recession. In the midst of the most severe economic downturn since the 1930s, public-sector unions came under political attack as overpaid and underworked from elected officials. In the name of fiscal discipline, governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Chris Christie targeted pensions, benefits, and bargaining rights of public workers. Though the most visible efforts came from the political right, often with the financial and logistical support of conservative organizations with a long history of opposition to public sector unions, they gained credence and legitimacy across partisan and ideological lines. In 2015, the Supreme Court heard a case, Friedrich vs. California Teachers Association, which challenged the basic legitimacy of exclusive representation and agency fees in the public sector. Only the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia prevented the court from imposing right-to-work restrictions on every government workplace in the country.

Ironically, many of the justifications for attacks on public-sector unions turned the formative premise of parity on its head. Public-sector union activists had rooted their demands for the full range of workplace rights and protections in a rebuke of second-class citizenship. They had marched, lobbied, and even struck to secure the same rights as industrial workers. Yet to an extent that they rarely recognized in the 1960s and 1970s, these demands rested on the existence of a successful private-sector labor movement. The decline of the private-sector labor movement left government workers vulnerable because of their relative success at warding off the pressures that continue to erode the American middle class. Recognizing this, public-sector unions in recent years have gone to extraordinary lengths to broaden the scope and process of bargaining by bringing community groups (and their interests and concerns) to negotiations with their employers. This practice of “Bargaining for the Common Good” is not wholly new, but it underscores the extent to which the history of public-sector unionism has always been tied to that of that of society at large.

Discussion of the Literature

Despite their importance to the modern American labor movement, public-sector workers received relatively little attention through most of the postwar era. Some notable exceptions notwithstanding, government employees drew far less scrutiny than their counterparts in mass-production industry, the construction trades, or even agricultural work. Despite the wealth of brilliant, innovative scholarship produced by a younger generation of labor and social historians during the last quarter of the 20th century, relatively few proved willing to treat government employees as “real” workers.64 Prior to 1990 or so, histories of public-sector unions were few, and were generally limited to localized studies of a single union. Relatively few historians subjected government-employee organizations to the central questions of labor history: the social construction of unions, organizing drives, the often contentious relationship between workers and labor leaders, one the one hand, and unions and the broader labor movement, on the other. To the extent that they appear at all in many accounts of postwar labor history, it is as an instrument that obscured the scale of the labor movement’s crisis by masking changes in overall rate of union density.65 The result was what Joseph A. McCartin characterized as “an astonishing misallocation of scholarly interest and energy” and a significantly distorted literature on postwar American labor.66

In recent years, this pattern of neglect has begun to change, and the public sector has emerged as a crucial, vibrant subset within the broader field of labor and working-class history. In part, this simply reflects the new realities of the 21st-century working class, which often bear little resemblance to the industrial workers of the old Fordist order. As scholars have softened their reliance on structural conceptions of class and focused on the question of, as Michael Zweig put it, “the power and authority people have at work,” they have turned their attention to those who labor for federal, state, and local governments.67

The result has been an astonishing shift in the literature. The last decade saw the publication of several important and pioneering works, and the trend accelerated into the early 21st century.68 A growing number of senior scholars, junior faculty, and graduate students have challenged the traditional boundary that confined public workers to a separate, distinctive, and exceptional class. Without denying important differences, they are bringing to bear on government employees many of the crucial questions and invigorating insights of the best in the study of working-class people and their institutions.

Primary Sources

Scholars and students of public-sector unionism may now draw on a rich and extensive array of archival sources, many of which have only begun to be examined by historians. As with many topics in American labor history, the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit offers the most important manuscript collections relating to public-sector unionism. The official repository for the institutional papers of AFSCME, the AFT, and SEIU, the Reuther Library, also holds the personal papers of dozens of key union activists, the records of allied and related organizations, and an extensive collection of oral histories. In recent years, George Washington University has opened the institutional records of both the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the National Education Association. The University of Maryland holds the national records of the AFL-CIO. Beyond these national collections, many unions have housed state and locality-specific records at archives and repositories. In terms of print material, the most important single source is the Government Employee Relations Report. Major magazines, including Business Week, Nation’s Business, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report, gave extensive coverage to the growing public-sector labor movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

The very nature of public-sector labor relations, of course, is such that the records of the “employer” are often much more freely and readily available than in the private sector—though rarely available in the same place. Federal records are spread through various agencies and across presidential libraries. The Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan Libraries have particular important materials relating to the policy and policy history of government labor. The Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State University have several collections relating to the history of PATCO and the PATCO strike.

For obvious reasons, it is harder to generalize about state and local government, which constitutes the majority of government employment. Government records, including the papers of mayoral and gubernatorial administrations, are often housed in official public archives and libraries, but elected officials who went on to a particularly prominent role may have their personal papers elsewhere. Among purely local collections, the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University have an extensive range of institutional records, manuscript collections, and oral histories relating to government work in the nation’s largest city. More recently, materials from several repositories relating to the Memphis Sanitation Strike have been digitized and made available through Crossroads to Freedom Project.

Further Reading

Freeman, Richard B. “Unionism Comes to the Public Sector.” Journal of Economic Literature 24.1 (March 1986): 41–86.Find this resource:

Honey, Michael J. Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.Find this resource:

Johnson, Paul. Success While Others Fail: Social Movement Unionism and the Public Workplace. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1994.Find this resource:

McCartin, Joseph A. “Bringing the State’s Workers Back In: Time to Rectify an Imbalanced US Labor Historiography.” Labor History 47.1 (2006): 73–94.Find this resource:

McCartin, Joseph A. Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Murphy, Marjorie. Blackboard Union: The AFT and the NEA, 1900–1980. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Rung, Margaret C. Servants of the State: Managing Diversity and Democracy in the Federal Service, 1933–1953. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Slater, Joseph E. Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900–1962. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Spero, Sterling. Government as Employer. New York: Remsen Press, 1948.Find this resource:

Ziskind, David. One Thousand Strikes of Government Employees. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.Find this resource:


(1.) Slater, Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900–1962 (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2004), 26; David Roediger and Philip S. Foner, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (New York: Verso, 1989), 31.

(2.) Sterling D. Spero, Government as Employer (New York: Remsen Press, 1948), 77, 83–84.

(3.) Commons, Labor and Administration (New York: Macmillan, 1913), 110.

(4.) Quoted in Slater, Public Workers, 16.

(5.) Spero, Government as Employer, 117–127.

(6.) “Taft Against Unions of Federal Workers,” New York Times, May 15, 1911, 4.

(7.) Commons, Labor and Administration, 173.

(8.) Commons, Labor and Administration, 109–113.

(9.) Commons, Labor and Administration, 109. In important respects, however, Commons remained wary of the full application of collective bargaining to government employment. Commons, Labor and Administration, 111–112.

(10.) Sterling D. Spero, The Labor Movement in a Government Industry: A Study of Employee Organization in the Postal Service (New York: George H. Doran, 1924).

(11.) Marjorie Murphy, Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900–1980 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).

(12.) Slater, Public Workers, 18.

(13.) Sam Mitrani, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850–1894 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).

(14.) Slater, Public Workers, 20.

(15.) Slater, Public Workers, 25.

(16.) Slater, Public Workers, 26.

(17.) Slater, Public Workers, 27–35.

(18.) Spero, The Labor Movement in a Government Industry, 9.

(19.) Spero, Government as Employer, 205–212.

(20.) Rung, Servants of the State, 54–55.

(21.) Rung, Servants of the State, 107–108.

(22.) Letter on the Resolution of Federation of Federal Employees Against Strikes in Federal Service, August 16, 1937. Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

(23.) Rung, Servants of the State, 62.

(24.) Rung, Servants of the State, 62.

(25.) David Ziskind, One Thousand Strikes of Government Employees (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914).

(26.) Ziskind, One Thousand Strikes, 167.

(27.) On labor and the TVA, see Wilson R. Hart, Collective Bargaining in the Federal Service: A Study of Labor-Management Relations in the United States Government Employment (New York: Harper, 1961). On the establishment of informal negotiation in the TVA, see Ziskind, One Thousand Strikes, 133–184.

(28.) Spero, Government as Employer, 319–324.

(29.) Slater, Public Workers, 97–124. Initially founded as the Building Service Employees International Union, SEIU officially changed its name in the late 1960s to reflect its increasingly diverse membership.

(30.) Qutoed in Joshua Freeman, In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933–1966 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 183.

(31.) Quoted in Spero, Government as Employer, 215.

(32.) The Transport Workers Union (TWU) in New York was forced to grapple directly with the difference in legal jurisdiction in the 1940s after the city took control of two previously privately owned subway systems, in a stroke converting more than 25,000 workers who had been covered under the National Labor Relations Act into public employees without legal access to collective bargaining. Eschewing both large-scale electioneering and back-room politicking, the CIO-affiliated union relied on mass demonstrations and threats of job actions to secure de facto recognition and meaningful material concessions, making it a crucial pioneer in the modern public-sector labor movement. Freeman, In Transit, 165–223.

(33.) Rung, Servants of the State, 137–156.

(34.) Landon R. Y. Storrs, “Attacking the Washington ‘Femmocracy’: Antifeminism in the Cold War Campaign against ‘Communists in Government,’” Feminist Studies 33.1 (Spring 2007): 121.

(35.) Rung, Servants of the State, 157–176.

(36.) Rung, Servants of the State, 176–183.

(37.) Francis P. Ryan, AFSCME’s Philadelphia Story: Municipal Workers and Urban Power in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011); Jewel Bellush and Bernard Bellush, Union Power and New York: Victor Gotbaum and District Council 37 (New York: Praeger, 1984).

(38.) Slater, Public Workers, 145.

(39.) This was particularly true in California, where several UPWA locals affiliated with SEIU, allowing it to carve out a dominant position in the state’s non-education, non-protective workforce. In New York, remnants of the UPWA were eventually incorporated into AFSCME’s District Council 37, which became the most powerful municipal union in New York City by the early 1960s.

(40.) Slater, Public Workers, 89.

(41.) Slater, Public Workers, 71–96.

(42.) Melvyn Dubofsky, Labor and the State in Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 197–217.

(43.) Slater, Public Workers, 165–192.

(44.) On the drafting of Kennedy’s order, see Joseph A. McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 36–43. On the impact of Executive Order 10988, see Richard B. Freeman, “Unionism Comes to the Public Sector,” Journal of Economic Literature 24 (1986): 41–76; Richard C. Kearney, Labor Relations in the Public Sector, 5th ed. (New York, Routledge, 2014); Martin Halpern, Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents: Seeking Social Change in the Twentieth Century (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 78–103.

(45.) Joshua B. Freeman, Working Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II (New York: New Press, 2001).

(46.) For an interpretation of public sector unionism that stresses this convergence, see Stanley Aronowitz, From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America’s Future (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 59–85.

(47.) Perhaps because of King’s involvement, the Memphis strikes have drawn an unusual amount of attention from historians. Joan Turner Beifuss, At the River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 Strike, and Martin Luther King (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1989); Steve Estes, “‘I AM A MAN!’: Race, Masculinity and the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike,” Labor History 41.2 (2000): 153–170; Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008).

(48.) On race and the public sector, see Michael B. Katz and Mark J. Stern, One National Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming (New York: Russell Sage, 2005), 86–101; Thoms B. Sugrue, “‘The Largest Civil Rights Organization Today’: Title VII and the Transformation of the Public Sector,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 11.3 (2014): 25–29.

(49.) Bureau of Labor Statistics, Work Stoppages in Government (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 1981).

(50.) For the long run-up to the postal workers strike, including the crucial role played by Civil Rights activists, see Philip F. Rubio, There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

(51.) Murphy, Blackboard Unions, 209–230.

(52.) “Policy Statement on Public Employee Unions: Rights and Responsibilities Adopted by International Executive Board, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, July 26, 1966,” in Sorry … No Government Today: Unions vs. City Hall, ed. Robert E. Walsh (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 67–70.

(53.) Jerald Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Jon Shelton, “Letters to the Essex County Penitentiary: David Selden and the Fracturing of America,” Journal of Social History 48.1 (Fall 2014): 135–155.

(54.) Joseph A. McCartin, “‘Fire the Hell out of Them’: Sanitation Workers’ Struggles and the Normalization of the Striker Replacement Strategy in the 1970s,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 2.3 (2005): 67–92.

(55.) On Attica, see Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (New York: Pantheon, 2016). On the role played by unionized police and prison guards in the rise of the carceral state, see Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

(56.) Shelton, “David Selden and the Fracturing of America,” 145.

(57.) Joseph A. McCartin, “‘A Wagner Act for Public Employees’: Labor’s Deferred Dream and the Rise of Conservatism, 1970–1976,” Journal of American History (June 2008): 123–148.

(58.) The literature on the New York City fiscal crisis is massive. For the particular role played by public sector unions, see Michael Spear, “A Crisis in Urban Liberalism: The New York City Municipal Unions and the 1970s Fiscal Crisis” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 2005).

(59.) For one example of how this played out at the local level, see Jon Shelton, “Against the Public: The Pittsburgh Teachers Strike of 1975–1976 and the Crisis of the Labor-Liberal Coalition,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 10.2 (2013): 55–75.

(60.) McCartin, “Striker Replacement Strategy in the 1970s,” 83–92.

(61.) Joseph A. McCartin, “Unexpected Convergence: Values, Assumptions, and the Right to Strike in Public and Private Sectors, 1945–2005,” Buffalo Law Review 57 (2009): 727–765. From the mid-1950s to early 2000s, the average number of strikes involving at least 1,000 workers dropped from 350 annually to 25.

(62.) Katherine Turk, Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

(63.) Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(64.) At root, Joseph Slater has noted, much of the negligence of historians in dealing with government workers can be traced to the intransigence of a neo-Marxist conception of class. Because public sector organization contested neither the distribution of profits nor the means of production, it has often been left out of labor history as something less than class conflict. Slater, Public Workers, 4–6.

(65.) For a prominent example of this tendency, see Michel Goldfield, The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

(66.) Joseph A. McCartin, “Bringing the State’s Workers In: Time to Rectify an Imbalanced US Labor Historiography,” Labor History 47.1 (February 2006): 73. Also see Robert Shaffer, “Where Are the Organized Public Employees? The Absence of Public Employee Unionism from U.S. History Textbooks and Why It Matters,” Labor History 43.3 (August 2002): 315–334.

(67.) Zweig, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 3.

(68.) Two crucial early examples were Murphy, Blackboard Unions and Paul Johnston, Success While Others Fail: Social Movement Unionism and the Public Workplace (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1994).