The first to seize on the political potential of government workers was New York’s Mayor Robert F. Wagner. The Kennedy White House took notice of his success.
The turbulent years of the 1960s and ’70s are best known by the headline-grabbing civil rights and women’s rights movements. But there was another “rights” movement, largely overlooked, that has also had a profound effect on American life. The looming public-pension crisis that threatens to bankrupt city, county and state governments had its origins in those same years when public employees, already protected by civil-service rules, gained the right to bargain collectively.
Liberals were once skeptical of public-sector unionism. In the 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia warned against it as an infringement on democratic freedoms that threatened the ability of government to represent the broad needs of the citizenry. And in a 1937 letter to the head of an organization of federal workers, FDR noted that “a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”
Private-sector union leaders were also divided. George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO from 1955-1979 who came out of the building trades, argued that it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” Private unionists more generally worried that rather than winning a greater share of profits, public-sector labor would be extracting taxes from a public that included their own workers. But in the late 1950s, with the failure of the labor movement’s organizing campaign in the South, Meany’s own executive council insisted on the necessity of winning the right to organize public employees.
The first to seize on the political potential of government workers was New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner. The mayor’s father, a prominent New Deal senator, had authored the landmark 1935 Wagner Act, which imposed on private employers the legal duty to bargain collectively with the properly elected union representatives of their employees. Mayor Wagner, prodded by Jerry Wurf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Afscme), gave city workers the right to bargain collectively in 1958.
Running for re-election in 1961, Mayor Wagner was opposed by the old-line party bosses of all five boroughs. He turned to a new force, the public-sector unions, as his political machine. His re-election resonated at the Kennedy White House, which had won office by only the narrowest of margins in 1960.
Ten weeks after Wagner’s victory, Kennedy looked to mobilize public-sector workers as a new source of Democratic Party political support. In mid-January 1962, he issued Executive Order 10988, which gave federal workers the right to organize in unions.
The scene in downtown Manhattan during a sanitation workers’ strike, 1968. ILLUSTRATION: GETTY IMAGES
Two young and militant public-sector unionists, Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and Wurf of Afscme, both strong supporters of the still nascent civil rights movement, seized the opportunity. Shanker saw both teachers and African-Americans as second-class citizens fighting the old-line political bosses. He’d also called a brief teachers strike in 1960. Shanker called another strike in 1962 that shifted the balance of power from principals to teachers, where it has remained down to the present.
In 1958, there had been but 15 public-employee strikes nationwide, involving a handful of workers. By 1968, after the old guard in Afscme had been deposed by the so-called young Turks led by Wurf, more than 200,000 union members, mostly in local and state government, were involved in 254 strikes.
In 1968, amid rioting, civil rights and antiwar protests, Martin Luther King Jr. backed an Afscme strike by poorly paid, mostly African-American sanitation men in Memphis, Tenn. After King’s tragic assassination, the city quickly settled with the union.
In the 1970s, government-worker unions became a political venue for New Leftist, feminist and black activists hoping to carry on in the militant spirit of the 1960s. The divisions within organized labor over the Vietnam War allowed Wurf and his allies to take on the declining private unions of the AFL-CIO, whose leader Meany backed the war. Wurf made himself a key player in George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, and public employees have had a lead role in Democratic Party politics ever since.
Public-employee unionism seemed to be moving from success to success—Afscme was gaining a thousand (mostly female) workers a week—until the summer of 1975. At that point, there was a surge in strikes, and the government unions began to threaten Democratic officeholders.
As Georgetown University historian Joseph McCartin has noted, New York sanitation workers walked off the job on July 1, 1975, allowing garbage to pile up in the streets of a Gotham already in the throes of fiscal crisis. In short order, cops objecting to furloughs imposed by the city’s liberal Democratic Mayor Abe Beame shut down the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, with marchers carrying signs that read “Cops Out, Crime In” and “Burn City Burn.” On that same day, 76,000 Pennsylvania state workers went on strike against liberal Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp’s austerity measures. Afscme’s leader in Pennsylvania, Gerald McEntee, told his members “Let’s go out and close down this God-damned state.” And in Seattle, the fireman’s union initiated a recall ballot on July 1 directed against the one-time union favorite, Mayor Wes Uhlman, who held back pay hikes in the midst of rising deficits.
Mr. Uhlman narrowly survived and he, like Beame and Shapp, calmed the situation by largely caving in to the striker’s demands. But a line had been crossed: With New York’s near-bankruptcy a visible marker, the peril posed by public-sector unionism became a problem for Democrats as well as Republicans.
The fiscal burden of public-employee unions briefly became visible again in the early ’80s, when many warned of a looming public-pension crisis. That crisis was averted by the stock market boom that began in 1982-83 and lasted until 2007-08. It is now back with a vengeance.
Restraining the immense clout that government-employee unions have accumulated over the past half-century will be difficult, but not impossible. Civil rights for African-Americans and women was a fulfillment of the universalist American promise as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Collective bargaining by public employees was not rooted in deep-seated American tradition.
Instead, the decision to grant this privilege was a political decision designed to enhance the power of a pressure group whose interests, even many liberals assumed, would be at odds with those of the general public. Political decisions can be reversed.
Mr. Siegel is a scholar in residence at St. Francis College and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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