Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Psychological Contract and the Union Contract: A Paradigm Shift in Public Sector Employee Relations

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Psychological Contract and the Union Contract: A Paradigm Shift in Public Sector Employee Relations

Article excerpt

Unionism in the public sector has been steadily rising both in size and influence. This trend has been occurring as unions in the private sector have been on an equally steady decline in size and influence. While this trend has not gone entirely unnoticed, there is little public awareness or debate as to whether this trend is in the public's best interest, and there is little guidance for the public sector human resource professional, policy makers and elected officials on how to effectively approach positive employee relations.

The purpose of this article is not to argue for or against public sector unions. Those debates are well established and well entrenched. This article does, however, seek to demonstrate how an understanding and application of behavioral science techniques and theories can aid the human resource professional and other interested parties in improving employee relations in public sector organizations, whether unionized or not. The public sector HR professional operates within the many constraints prescribed by statutes, labor agreements, policy and procedures manuals, and established precedents. Yet at the same time, the HR professional is faced with the growing challenges of increasing efficiency in government, creating harmony in employee relations, and controlling worker costs.

To address these concerns, this article seeks to add to the dialogue, and to add a perspective concerning the issues associated with the rise in public sector unions, and more broadly, positive employee relations, by:

* Creating an awareness of how and why public sector unions have grown in size and influence

* Contrasting the differences between public and private sector unions

* Proposing a model for effective employee relations, whether union or not

The Rise and Fall of Unions

There has been an inverse pattern in the rise and fall of unions in the public and private sectors. As unions have risen in size and influence in the public sector, they have correspondingly fallen in the private sector. A review of union membership in the public and private sectors since 1950 will demonstrate these opposing trends (1):

       Union Membership as % of Workforce

Year   Private Sector       Public Sector

1950        34.6                 12.3
1960        31.9                 10.8
1970        29.1                 32
1980        20.6                 35.1
1990        12.1                 36.5
2000        9                    37.5
2004        7.9                  36.6

There are many reasons to explain this rise and fall in union membership in the public and private sectors. A review of these principal reasons will emphasize the need for enhanced employee relations with regard to public sector employees, and will serve to explain the broad social, global, demographic and economic trends at work.

Private Sector Union Decline

1. Labor unions in the private sector have traditionally been more dominant in industrial and manufacturing sectors than in service sectors. The basic industries where unions were strong have lost their prominence. The significant decline in jobs in these sectors through outsourcing, technology and productivity practices have no doubt contributed to the decline in union membership.

2. Human resource professionals should take satisfaction in knowing that proactive HR practices have increased the level of cooperation between employees and management, such that employees are increasingly feeling their interests can be served without third party intervention.

3. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an increasing number of laws and regulations have been passed to provide workplace protection to workers in areas traditionally guaranteed by union agreements, such as protection against unfair dismissal, pay equity, and redress of grievances. Employees today who feel unfairly treated are just as likely to say "I'll talk to my lawyer or the EEOC" as they are to say "I'll report this to my shop steward. …

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