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Labor Relations in the Public Sector



Public employee unions are under fire as governments at all levels seek to cope with limited resources and budget reductions. Unions are adept at hardball politics: They act as protectors (defending employees’ rights and interests), partners (with prolabor stakeholders), and punishers (against those perceived to be antilabor). These three roles help explain union behavior both internally (within the workplace) and externally (outside the workplace).

The rise and decline of unions in contemporary history is well documented: Representing more than one-third of U.S. workers by the mid-20th century, unions were a “countervailing power” against business and government in American democracy. Viewed as the champion of the underdog, organized labor was influential in many policy debates (e.g., trade, taxes, fair labor standards, social security, civil rights, public education, health care, equal pay for women, workplace safety).

In short, important facets of labor–management relations include its evolution, legal basis, and collective bargaining procedures. Most public employees and managers have definite opinions about unions—some favorable, some unfavorable. On the positive side, employees dissatisfied with their jobs or working conditions might see union membership as a way to salve their smoldering discontent, offering an avenue for championing workplace reforms. Unions might protect vulnerable workers and enable them to seek redress against arbitrary or capricious actions by employers.

Workers may also think union membership can amplify their voices in the workplace and increase their influence with management. Vigilant unions can help keep management honest and ensure fair dealings with personnel. Collective action, especially in the labor-intensive public sector, sometimes yields results unattainable through concerted individual efforts.

Managers may view unions as introducing conflict, distraction, and disruption into the workplace, thus inhibiting cooperative working relationships. Unions may be viewed as reflexively proemployee and antimanagement. Also, unions may be seen to complicate or delay policy implementation. Some managers, especially those in right-to-work states (where mandatory union membership is outlawed), believe that current organizational policies and procedures are fair to employees.

Those opposed to unions often combine their criticisms with proposals to privatize public services. Managers may try to inoculate employees against union appeals by quickly responding to morale concerns, establishing grievance procedures, and empowering workers.

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