The Strangely Unsettled State of Public-Sector Labor in the Past Thirty Years
30 Hofstra Lab. & Emp. L.J. 511 (2013)
31 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2013
Date Written: October 24, 2013
This article, part of a symposium on the history of various areas of labor and employment law, gives an overview of public-sector labor law and labor relations in the past thirty years. The public sector has for decades been central to labor relations in the U.S.; increasingly, it has also acquired a high profile in the political world. Despite great successes in organizing by public-sector unions, public-sector labor law has long been in a state of tumult (including, but not limited to, high-profile laws passed in 2011 gutting the rights of such unions). Although by the 1980s, it seemed as if public-sector collective bargaining was widely (if not universally) accepted, and that it functioned fairly well, the next three decades featured surprising upheavals. Because there is so much variation within the public sector (it is mainly state and local law), there is no single story of the past three decades. This article discusses illustrative events in this period, events which helped shape the broader history of labor relations. It starts with early history of public-sector labor law, then moves to the last three decades. For the 1980s, it discusses two key (and contrasting) events of the early part of the decade: the crushing defeat of the PATCO strike, and the enactment of the Ohio public-sector labor statute. It then discusses some significant twists and turns in the 1990s. Moving to the twenty-first century, it discusses some (mostly positive) trends for public-sector unions in the first decade of the century, but then turns to the wave of anti-union legislation in 2011 and beyond — although even here, there are some developments in the other direction, e.g. union rights for TSA employees. These events feature defeats and victories over issues as basic as whether public employees should have the right to bargain collectively at all, and they have shaped the entire U.S. labor movement, including the public sector. The also show how public-sector labor relations remains a strangely unsettled issue. The final sections discuss the practical and theoretical policy issues at stake, and attempt to make some predictions for the future.
Keywords: Labor relations; public-sector labor relations; labor history; history of labor law; history of public-sector labor
JEL Classification: J45, J50, J58, J53, K31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation