Can Employee Associations Negotiate New Growth?

By Levitan, Sar A.; Gallo, Frank | Monthly Labor Review, July 1989 | Go to article overview

Can Employee Associations Negotiate New Growth?

Levitan, Sar A., Gallo, Frank, Monthly Labor Review

Sar. A Levitan is Research Professor of Economics at The George Washington University, and Director of The George Washington Center for Social Policy Studies. Frank Gallo is a research associate at the Center. The research for this article was funded by an ongoing grant from the Ford Foundation to the Center.

Associations of Government employees have grown steadily and adopted collective bargaining, but prospects of future growth are limited

The evolution of Govemment employee associations into virtual unions and the absorption of associations by established unions have played a major role in the growth of public-sector unionization. For many years now, most of the growth experienced by unions has come through the latter route of absorption. This article examines the ways in which Govemment employee associations have flourished and briefly traces their history and interaction with unions throughout the 20th century, concluding that further unionization of Govemment employees by absorption is unlikely.

Two broad types of Govemment employee associations had evolved by the mid-20th century. Single-profession associations like the National Education Association, Fraternal Order of Police, and American Association of University Professors originated in the latter half of the 19th or early 20th century. Associations that served members united by a common employer (for example, the Federal Government or a State or local government) without regard to occupation were founded in the 1940's and 1950's. Generally, both varieties of association began with limited agendas and sometimes existed only to pool members in order to purchase insurance or organize social events. Even bona fide Government unions often behaved like associations before die 1960's, because public workers had no legal right to bargain collectively.

Until 1960, relatively little change occurred in either type of association. Thereafter, however, their character changed dramatically. To retain their independence in the face of union competition, associations of single professions became much more like unions themselves. Among common-employer organizations, many State and local associations were unsuccessful in their bid to resist raiding campaigns and merged with established unions.

Post-1960 changes

The enactment of public-sector bargaining laws by most States, together with competition from established unions, was chiefly what drove public employee associations to adopt collective bargaining. The contributory economic, legal, attitudinal, and political factors are interrelated: unions and associations, of course, require political and sometimes economic clout to enact laws, but statutory power is also often necessary to overcome management opposition to organizing campaigns.

Public-sector bargaining laws were instrumental, if not critical, to the transformation of Government employee associations and their embrace of collective action..sub.1 In 1959, Wisconsin enacted the first State public-sector bargaining law, and more than 30 States followed during the 1960's and early 1970's. Today, only 10 States remain outside the pale of such laws. These States, with 15 percent of State and local govemment employees, are almost all in the South and do not sanction bargaining rights for any group of public employees. According to AI Bilik, president of the AFL-cio Public Employee Department, unions have abandoned efforts to enact public-sector bargaining laws in them.(2) Because it is not usually explicitly forbidden, limited bargaining does occur in these States. However, the AFL-cio reports that in 1982 (the latest data available) an estimated 71 percent of nonmanagerial Government workers were organized in States which legally permitted the majority of their employees to bargain, but only 14 percent were organized in the remaining States .3 In several instances, the enactment of a publicsector bargaining law has affected associations directly and visibly. …

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