A Discussion on the Challenges Facing Government, Public Services and Public Sector Collective Bargaining in the U.S.

On June 8, 2011, leaders of U.S. public employee unions met in Washington, D.C. to discuss the crisis facing government and public services in the U.S. and to consider strategies and actions that would introduce balance into a public discourse dominated by an anti-government and anti-union narrative. The meeting featured expert speakers, including top economists, legal scholars, and public opinion researchers, as well as national, state and local union officers.

Other participants were senior staff from the AFT, AFSCME, SEIU, CWA as well as officers and other experts from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The attack on public services and public employees gained momentum as a result of the 2010 elections. It had its roots in an anti-government ideology that over the past 30 years has come to dominate political discourse in the U.S., and has already gone a long way toward undermining the social and economic institutions – like unions -- that have sustained the American Dream since the New Deal period. The largely successful attack on private sector unions has eroded a non-governmental pillar of U.S. democracy and the country’s middle class.

Although the Institute’s programs are normally off the record -- in order to encourage a frank and often provocative exchange on sometimes sensitive issues –the urgency of the moment and the rich discussions offered during the program prompted a reconsideration of that practice. It seemed clear that the content of these presentations could contribute to the very important debate about the place of government and public services in a healthy economy.

Accordingly, with the permission of the speakers, the Institute has posted some of the key presentations, with their follow up discussions, on its website. The Q & A’s are featured without identification. The presentations are derived from taped transcripts of the meeting and have been edited only for clarity and readability.

The issues presented are far ranging, and touch on a number of critically important topics, including the impact of government spending on economic growth and healthy democratic participation; comparisons of public/private sector employee compensation; the legal status and history of public sector collective bargaining and suggested innovations to that process; the relationship of good government and a strong union voice to a healthy democracy; and the political forces driving the anti-union, anti-public services campaign and how they are funded.

An underlying theme of all the talks was the role government and public services had played in complementing and sustaining such American values as economic opportunity for all -- that hard work can still be the route to a decent, middle class life.

Other specialists discussed on how best to present these data to a public and media.

The program began with a presentation on “Why we need public spending.” an exhaustively-researched study on public spending, public services and economic growth in the OECD countries, including the U.S. Drawing on data reaching back as far as 135 years ago, the study rejects the view that government spending is a drag on economic development and growth and argues that it has had exactly the opposite effect. The detailed report, produced under the auspices of Public Services International (PSI), has been presented at various forums in Europe. PSI is the global union federation for public sector trade unions. It represents some 650 trade unions in 148 countries and territories that together organize more than 20 million public sector workers, providing services in central government, health and social care, municipal and community services, and public utilities.

The “public spending” session also focused on the negative stereotypes about government and public employees that have dominated the public discourse, such as the view that public employees have higher pay than private sector workers (they don’t), that government spending caused the financial crisis (it didn’t), that government spending is bad for the economy --data collected for better than a century make it clear that a healthy and often growing level of government spending is associated with higher standards of living and a growing economy.

These data were particularly salient in view of the debate over the best strategy to create jobs in this period of economic crisis -- austerity or public spending. (The austerity policy fiercely debated in 2011 proved to be a debacle for Europe; editor's note, 2/09/15).

Among the most compelling aspects of the presentations were those that focused on “myth-busting.” For example, speakers presented data that discredited the methodology and conclusions of the frequently heard claims that public sector worker compensation exceeds that of the private sector. Other speakers presented data comparing U.S. health care costs and outcomes, including life expectancy and infant mortality rates. These data revealed that the U.S., which alone among advanced countries has a private health care system, pays far more for its health care, with worse results for its citizens, than countries with public systems. Other data examined myths about taxes, especially the notion that high taxes lead to low growth. The data show there is no such linkage. In addition, high tax countries score higher on quality-of-life indices.

Other cross/national comparisons revealed an interesting positive correlation between the rate of democratic participation and the level of government spending: the more government spends, the more people turn out to vote.

In addition top legal scholars discussed the history of public sector bargaining in the U.S., and its impact on government costs and effectiveness. The discussions included proposals for concrete reforms to ‘scope of bargaining’ laws, designed to encourage labor management collaboration on productivity and efficiency in government.

Below are links to the transcripts. We hope you find the information useful.




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