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  • The Civic Power Of Unions And The Anti-Union Political Agenda

    Written on April 21, 2016

    This is the second of two posts on the political dimensions of the Friedrichs case. The first post can be read here.

    Before Justice Scalia’s sudden death, it appeared that, through the Friedrichs case, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority would succeed in imposing “right to work” status on public sector working people across the nation. As discussed in a previous post, there were signs that this conservative bloc was looking to deliver its decision in time to sideline the four largest public employee unions – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – from the 2016 elections. Not coincidentally, these are also the unions that have the strongest political operations in the American labor. If Scalia had not died and these intentions were realized, what would have been the impact on the 2016 election and beyond?

    To grasp the full impact of a negative Friedrichs decision, had the conservative justices been successful in their plans, it is necessary to gauge the effect that public employee unions have on the political activism of their members. Ironically, insight into this question can be gleaned from an essay that exhibits a critical attitude toward public sector unions and collective bargaining, Patrick Flavin’s and Michael Hartney’s “When Government Subsidizes Its Own: Collective Bargaining Laws as Agents of Political Mobilization.”1 (Hereafter, F&H.) While not without analytical flaws, a number of which will be discussed below, F&H contributes to the literature with a new way of measuring the effect of teacher unions on teacher political activism and engagement, above and beyond voting. (Teachers have always voted at consistently high rates, with over 90 percent turnout in presidential elections and over 80 percent in mid-term elections.) Consequently, F&H places in relief the union contribution to member political activism that was targeted by the SCOTUS conservatives.

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  • The Political Calculus Behind Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

    Written on April 20, 2016

    When the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered its March 29 ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the announcement of a 4 to 4 deadlock was something of an anticlimax.  Ever since the sudden February 12 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, SCOTUS watchers had anticipated just such an impasse. Based on Scalia’s questions when the case was argued before the Court a month before his passing, the late justice appeared to be the fifth vote for a decision that would have overturned 40 years of precedent – in effect, imposing “right to work” status on all those working in the public sector and eviscerating their unions. Without this vote, the four remaining conservative justices failed to constitute a majority.

    In the days following this decision, observers across the political spectrum described the judicial deadlock in Friedrichs as a victory for public sector workers and their unions (at least for the moment). A more definitive resolution of the issue awaits Senate confirmation of Scalia’s successor, whether President Obama’s pick, Judge Merrick Garland, or someone yet to be named by the next president.

    But, so far, what has been missing from most media commentaries is a recognition of the immediate political import of the Court’s impasse, and most especially, its impact on the 2016 election campaign. To understand the full political dimensions of Friedrichs – how the Court’s conservative majority seem to have been prepared to use the case to sway the election – a brief review of the case is necessary.

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  • Is There A Pension Crisis?

    Written on July 28, 2015

    Our guest author today is David Cay Johnston, a distinguished visiting lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law and a former Pulitzer prize-winning financial reporter at The New York Times. This article is adapted from his remarks to an ASI-sponsored conversation on the topic in March, which also included remarks from Chad Aldeman, Teresa Ghilarducci, and Dan Pedrotty. A video of this event can be found here.

    So the question is whether there is a pension crisis. The answer is yes, absolutely. It’s just not the one that politicians always talk about.

    Contrary to that you hear about on TV, in market economics, defined benefit pensions are the second most efficient way to provide for income in old age. The most effective way would be a national program that spreads risks to everyone. The least efficient way to do it is through defined contribution plans.

    There is abundant evidence for this. Defined contribution plans work very well, but only as supplements for prosperous people such as me and my wife, who is a public charity CEO, they are not at all effective for most people. That’s be because defined contribution plans violate specialization, one of the most basic tenets of market economics as taught to us by Adam Smith, the man who first explained market economics.

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  • How Many Schools Don't Have Nurses?

    Written on March 26, 2013

    In 2006, the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) commissioned the largest and, to my knowledge, most recent national survey on the availability of nursing services in U.S. public schools. It was administered to a sample of over 1,000 schools in all 50 states and D.C.

    The primary purpose was to gather basic information on the health staff in these schools, as well as a few core characteristics, such as school size and student demographics.

    I must confess that I was a little surprised by the results. Here is the distribution of schools by nursing availability, summarized very briefly (these proportions vary by school size, type and other characteristics):

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  • Public Servants Versus Private Contractors ... Again

    Written on September 22, 2011

    Has the battle over public sector compensation turned a decisive corner? Have much-maligned government workers won an evidence-based victory?

    Reasonable people might think so, thanks in part to a study by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan group that keeps close tabs on government operations. According to the findings of the POGO report – findings that they call "shocking" – the "federal government approves service contract billing rates … that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services."

    More specifically, federal government employees cost less than private contractors in 33 of the 35 occupational classifications reviewed – and non-federal private sector worker compensation was lower than contractor billing rates in all of the reviewed classifications. In one case, contractor bill rates were nearly "5 times more" than the full compensation rates paid to comparable federal workers.

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  • Public Employee Unions And Voter Turnout

    Written on May 10, 2011

    During the recent debates over public employees’ collective bargaining rights, especially around the Wisconsin protests, I heard a few people argue that Republican governors are intent on destroying public sector unions, at least in part, because union members are more likely to vote – and to vote Democratic.

    The latter argument (union members are more likely to vote Democratic) is generally true (also here) – although the union "effect" on candidate/party choice is of course complicated. The former argument (more likely to vote in general) is also valid, but there is some underlying public/private variation that is both interesting and important.

    As is almost always the case, isolating the effect of a given factor (in this case, how being a union member affects the likelihood of voting) requires one to compare how this factor “operates” on people who are otherwise similar. For example, in a previous post, I compared public and private sector workers’ earnings. In order to uncover the “effect” of public sector employment on earnings, I used models that controlled for other relevant, measurable factors, such as education and experience. In doing so, I was able to (imperfectly) ensure that I was comparing public and private employees who were similar in terms of skills and qualifications.

    The same basic concept applies to voting.

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  • Unions And Pensions: Unfunded Culpability

    Written on May 4, 2011

    The Pew Center on the States just released an updated report on unfunded liabilities of state pension (and retiree health) systems. The figures are sobering. In FY 2009, state pension plans were funded at an average of 79 percent, meaning that they were short about one dollar for every five that projections suggest they’ll need to meet their obligations.

    While there’s no doubt about the troublesome implications of these findings, there’s a lot of disagreement as to causes. Lately, governors and state legislators (of both parties, but mostly Republicans), as well as dozens of commentators, have tried to lay the blame on the public sector workers, to whom the pensions are owed – seeking to restrict these workers’ collective bargaining rights, with the claim that this will help control the cost of benefits.

    The unfairness of blaming public sector workers – and their unions – should be pretty clear. By all accounts (also here), the primary reason that pension plans are in trouble is that the 2008 collapse of financial markets decimated the value of pension fund investments (the early 2000’s recession also seems to have played a role). Add to that an aging population (there is an increasing percentage of retirees as a share of the population, and they are living longer), as well as the failure of many states to make their required contributions during good times, and you have a fairly comprehensive explanation for the pension "crisis."

    Nevertheless, some have argued that public employee collective bargaining has exacerbated states’ pension problems – after all, more than their non-union counterparts, union members have tended to trade current salaries in favor of increases in deferred benefits. In that case, we might expect that states with higher densities in public sector union membership will have larger unfunded pension obligations. These differences need not be huge, but it’s reasonable to anticipate that they would be discernible. Let’s take a look.

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  • Are Teachers Driving The Public/Private Sector Earnings Gap?

    Written on April 4, 2011

    A great deal of the debate surrounding public sector unions focus on how much public employees earn versus private workers. Every credible analysis – those that account for huge differences between public and private workers in terms of characteristics like profession, education, and experience – find that public compensation is competitive or lower than that of private-sector workers (for recent examples, see here, here, and here, or a review here).

    I have, however, heard a few thoughtful observers make the point that virtually all these analyses include education workers, and that this might be a little misleading. It’s a fair point. Roughly one in five state/local government employees are in fact K-12 teachers, while another five percent are professors at public colleges and universities. This is important because analyses of public/private sector compensation essentially compare public employees with workers with similar characteristics (education being the most important one) in the private sector. The research above indicates that workers with more education pay a larger “price” for working in the public sector, whereas many lesser credentialed, lower-skilled government jobs actually pay more. Since many teachers have master’s degrees (and professors Ph.D.’s), and they are such a huge group, it’s reasonable to wonder if they might be skewing the overall estimates.

    So, I decided to see if a comparison of public/private compensation that does not include teachers and professors would yield very different results. Let’s take a look.

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  • How To Make A Misleading Public/Private Earnings Gap Disappear

    Written on March 5, 2011

    USA Today last week published yet another story claiming that public sector workers make more that their private sector counterparts - this one saying that Wisconsin is one of many states where this is the case. Their “analysis” used data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and compared total compensation (salary+benefits) between workers in the private sector and state/local government.

    No matter how many times they are told that you can’t just make a straight comparison of dissimilar groups of workers, apparently they still don’t get it. Incredibly, this particular article admits as much, and even quotes economist Jeffrey Keefe, who tells them that the gross comparisons don’t account for important sectoral differences in education and other factors. In other words, their numbers don’t tell us much of anything about public versus private sector compensation. Still, there is the headline: "Wisconsin one of 41 states where public workers earn more." How many people saw that headline, and now believe that public workers are “overpaid?"

    USA Today, of course, is not alone. These assertions have lately become insidious, coming from governors, commentators, and others. But when a major national newspaper decides to run this story at this politically-charged time, based on their very own “analysis," a separate response seems in order.

    I’ve discussed this issue before, but maybe it would be more helpful to show how the data are more properly analyzed in a step-by-step fashion, using 2009 U.S. Census microdata (the American Community Survey, available from the wonderful organization IPUMS.org). Here’s how you make a false earnings gap disappear in five minutes.

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  • Seize The Day?

    Written on March 2, 2011

    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for his state’s public employees has generated a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from both sides. Some conservatives have taken particular umbrage at demonstrators’ signs likening Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hosni Mubarak. They are right that Walker is not akin to these brutal, murderous dictators, who solidified power by crushing independent unions. Indeed, they need not look overseas at all to find anti-union inspiration. The U.S. has its own rich tradition of union-busting – albeit considerably less fierce than in these particular dictatorial regimes.  

    This information is just a mouse-click away. Anyone with access to the internet can easily trace the history of violent state and business response to unions and union organizing in America, dating back 150 years. It’s not just the infamous Pinkertons and other thugs hired by business. Police, the National Guard, even federal troops have been used to brutally suppress workers’ efforts to form their own unions. Homestead, Haymarket, Ludlow, Pullman, the 1937 Battle of the Overpass – all are storied examples of incredibly violent action against workers and their organizations.

    This sort of drama, punctuated by carnage and death, is pretty much a thing of the past. With the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, anti-union judicial decisions, global outsourcing, and the emergence of union-busting consultants, quashing unions has become, well, child’s play. America’s private sector unions have been on the defensive for better than half a century, with membership eroded to only seven percent of the private sector workforce. With Wisconsin, the attack against public service unions is well and truly launched.

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