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I once asked a teacher (NY city public school) whether teacher unions were a good idea. He said: "they are bad for you and good for me".

A trade union increases the power of the employees by allowing them to bargain collectively with the employer: when the employer has too much power (e.g., the only job in town), a union can "level the playing field" by controlling a large % of skilled workers and negotiate a better pay or benefits which would otherwise be denied by the employer's access to other labor sources. By controlling the labor force, a union is (or attempts to be) a monopoly itself.

However, in the case of the public employees, like police & teachers, the employer is the public. Thus, from the public's POV, such a union is just another special interest extorting resources from the taxpayers.

The public perception of the teachers and police unions appears to be more benevolent than, say, a commercial interest extracting a tax concession and towards unionization of public employees than other employers.

Why is the public opinion so much more favorable towards the unions of public employees, both compared with the public's attitude towards commercial special interests and compared with the attitude of other employers to trade unions?

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    "bad subjective" question. It imports theoretical assumptions without specifying them. – Samuel Russell Jun 28 '13 at 7:52
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    @SamuelRussell - Actually this is asking for a pretty concrete answer what makes public unions legal and permissible. There is nothing subjective about it. Bad subjective would be "should we change that?" or "Is this wrong?" – SoylentGray Jun 28 '13 at 12:46
  • I'm putting a temporary lock on the question. Lots and lots of tangentially related discussion in comments, and anything useful in this whole thread is starting to get buried in noise. Please consider using chat for extended discussions. If you happen to have a good answer and can't post it because of the lock, feel free to flag the question for moderation attention so we can unlock it. – yannis Jun 29 '13 at 16:21
  • Is a policy good or bad does nothing but lead to discussion so I have voted to close as off topic though It probably should have been opinion based. – SoylentGray Jul 1 '13 at 20:02
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The legal reasons why public employees can unionize have been elsewhere described. let me add an answer explaining why allowing them to unionize is a good idea.

Private corporations don't hold a monopoly on trying to get their employees to do as much work as possible for the least amount of money. In fact I've heard many politicians using the "its public money" rhetoric to try to drive down public sector wages, regardless of whether the wages are 'fair' or not. And remember that democracies are not places where majorities get to do whatever they want to minorities. The wishes of taxpayers don't automatically trump the needs of workers.

The second point is that for a lot of public sector workers there is only one employer. An engineer or an accountant can always go to another company. A firefighter can't go to 'the other' fire service in town if they don't like what this one is doing to them. The same is usually true of police or teachers. Given that, unions are at least as necessary in the public sector as the private.

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  • there are plenty of private schools and security jobs, but you are actually closer than anyone else to answering the actual question – sds Jun 28 '13 at 17:59
  • @sds if this is a close answer, then I suggest rewording your question a bit to ask "why should..." rather thay simply "why can...". That'd make the question match this answer better. – user1530 Jun 28 '13 at 18:48
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  1. Public sector employees can currently unionize because President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988. This law afforded public employees the same rights as private sector employees.

    SECTION 1. (a) Employees of the Federal Government shall have, and shall be protected in the exercise of, the right, freely and without feel of penalty or reprisal, to form, join and assist any employee organization or to refrain from any such activity. [...]

    SEC. 2. When used in this order, the term "employee organization" means any lawful association, labor organization, federation, council, or brotherhood having as a primary purpose the improvement of working conditions among Federal employees or any craft, trade or industrial union whose membership includes both Federal employees and employees of private organizations; but such term shall not include any organization (1) which asserts the right to strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, or to assist or participate in any such strike, or which imposes a duty or obligation to conduct, assist or participate in any such strike, or (2) which advocates the overthrow of the constitutional form of Government in the United States, or (3) which discriminates with regard to the terms or conditions of membership because of race, color, creed or national origin.


  2. Public Sector Unions were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (nicknamed the Wagner Act) signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    It was well understood by the president that a public employee union would have a special relationship with the government that make it impossible for administrative officials to fully represent the interests of the people and that that public employees shouldn't have the right to strike.

    This was most clearly articulated during FDR's press conference on July 9, 1937; here is a full text.

    Also, in "112 - Letter on the Resolution of Federation of Federal Employees Against Strikes in Federal Service, August 16, 1937", he stated:

    All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.

    Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, 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. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that "under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government."


  3. In general, labor unions approval rating has been declining, and has settled at around 52% approval. Public-sector jobs make up a small percentage of the all jobs (15%-10%) with and even split of all union members, but the public sector has a significantly higher membership rate so it is unlikely that private/public union membership accounts for all the support that labor unions have in the USA. To contrast that, American's support for tax breaks for corporations seems to vary wildly, from poll (70% eliminate some corporate tax breaks) to poll (82% approve of new corporate tax breaks for corporations bring jobs back to USA). With such a wide swing in poll results, I am loathe to draw any conclusions about public perception of unions versus corporate tax breaks.

    Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.9 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.6 percent). (See table 3.)

    In 2012, 7.3 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.0 million union workers in the private sector.

    The vast majority of federal jobs have better pay (averaging about $7,500), in addition to better benefits (averaging about $30,000). Public-sector employees are also hard to fire for poor performance or gross misconduct, and have much better job securtity than the private sector.

The federal government fired 0.55% of its workers in the budget year that ended Sept. 30 — 11,668 employees in its 2.1 million workforce. Research shows that the private sector fires about 3% of workers annually for poor performance

Some states have taken steps to limit the collective bargaining power of public sector unions.

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    "vast majority of federal jobs have better pay" small correction there...that is true, in terms of numbers. But note that typically with government jobs, the lower-end jobs are typically better paid (ie, a custodian) than their private counterpart, but the higher-end jobs are typically lower paid (ie, upper management, CIO, COO, etc.). The main difference is that the pay spectrum is a lot tighter in public than private. – user1530 Jun 28 '13 at 18:46
  • @DA. - for some reason, I don't think that CIO/COO jobs have high relevance to Q&A about unionization :) – user4012 Jun 28 '13 at 19:12
  • @dvk in that unionization is a relationship between workers and management, sure it does. – user1530 Jun 28 '13 at 19:14
  • @DA. - the point being made was that the public sector unionized employees don't even need the union as they are already paid higher. Since we aren't unionizing management,(i hope?!) which of 2 managements gets paid more is irrelevant to that point. – user4012 Jun 28 '13 at 19:21
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    @dvk they are paid higher, because they are unionized. And that's (arguably) just fine because the budget isn't being stretched by your typical exaggerated upper management salaries. – user1530 Jun 28 '13 at 19:23
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A public employees Union is like just about any other Union except that the corporation is just a whole lot bigger and has a lot more shareholders.

And public unions such as teacher's unions don't just extract money from the state they do labor too(like teaching our kids), and, like other unions, they unionize to negotiate for better compensation and look out for their own interests, like just about every union out there does.

I really don't know what else to say except that public trade unions exist and do what they do for the exact same reasons why private-sector trade unions do.


And just like private-sector unions, the public-sector unions will make contracts with their employer(the government) regarding a whole host of HR issues, negotiate renewal of those contracts, and potentially strike if they can't agree on a contract.


The reason why some people support public-sector unions is perhaps because one belongs to a private-sector union and can identify with other types of unions, or maybe one is a member of a public-sector union him/her-self; the government does employ a very large number of people.

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