Public Sector Unionism Has Finally Arrived

Article excerpt

PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONISM HAS FINALLY ARRIVED Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900-1962. By Joseph E. Slater. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press (, 2004. 260pages. $39.95.

In September 1919, a group of Boston policemen went on strike for the same reasons that other union workers normally do-they wanted better wages, hours and working conditions. But the public was not sympathetic to those demands, to say the least. Crowds attacked the striking police officers, some of whom were pelted with stones. "Kill them all," the mobs chanted. For three days, Boston was near anarchy. The government sent in troops to restore peace, and the strikers-all 1,147were fired.

Joseph Slater, an associate professor of law at the University of Toledo, starts his highly readable book with this disturbing, but powerful, image, illustrating for readers the precarious beginnings of public-sector unionism in the United States. "The Boston strike was routinely cited by courts and officials through the end of the 1940s," writes Slater. "Even in later decades, opponents of public sector unions would invoke the strike as a cautionary tale of the evils of unions."

From the start, unions of government employees were not considered the equal of their union counterparts in the private sector. Historians traditionally consider the role of public workers in the labor movement to be marginal. This book explains why, but it also shows readers that it's high time to change that kind of thinking.

A Rough Start

The Boston police strike essentially destroyed other police locals. Naturally, other public sector unions tried to distance themselves by adopting no-strike policies, which drastically reduced the number of strikes. But hostility remained. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued a report concluding that government agencies could not enter into binding arbitration with unions of government employees. Simultaneously, public employers across the nation issued rules barring their employees from even organizing. This devastated public sector unions, and their struggle against numerous restrictions lasted through the early 1960s.

Central to this problem, Slater points out, is the public sector union's lack of legal rights. "Up to the 1960s, under court-made law, public sector unions generally had no right to strike, to bargain, to arbitrate disputes, and government workers could be fired simply for joining a union. …