Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (left) LERA Past President, Professor and Dean of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois
Craig Olson (right) Professor, School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois
The interview with Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld and Craig Olson on May 3, 2011, began with host David Inge making an observation that the past months having been the most serious threat to organized labor since President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981. Inge asked, “Where are we now and why is it that there is this pressure on public sector unions?” Click here to hear the interview.
Financial and Political Dynamic
Is it about union busting? Purely economics? Politics?
The guests offered that there are a few different things going on simultaneously. Federal and state governments are facing financial crises. During the recessions of the early 1980s and early ’90s, the response was to cut back and have concessionary agreements not undermine the actual rules for collective bargaining itself. Now there appears to be an additional agenda, some of which may be to shift the balance of power with respect to the employment relationship. It may also reflect a desire to shift the balance of power on the political side. In Wisconsin, it looked like an intention to weaken unions as an institution and a political force in the state.
The public sector unions’ relationship with management and the bargaining process is a mixed bag. On average, a higher proportion of interest-based bargaining happens in the public sector than in the private. It is an open process and information is available in terms of finances and costs. Nevertheless, plenty of instances of strikes and contentious relationships have occurred in the decades we’ve had public sector collective bargaining. In the absence of governing laws, parties resort to a combination of political pressure and collective actions that are disruptive and detrimental to the public interest. Management has the power advantage in the short run and will work without clear rules. Collective bargaining works best when governed by clear rules, explained the interviewees.
Who Gets the Better Deal? Private or Public Workers?
In response to the statement that public sector workers are getting a better deal than private sector workers, Olson responded: Teachers make up a large portion of the public sector workforce. On average, their education levels are higher than workers in private sector. In last 25 years, there is a growing gap between college educated workers and those without college degrees. Teachers’ salaries have not kept up with inflation and college-educated private sector employees’ salaries. Part of the choices school districts have to make is about the quality of the workforce they employ. If salaries are reduced, will they attract qualified teachers?
Cutcher-Gershenfeld noted the average state pensioner in Illinois receives $26,000 a year and most don’t get Social Security. The benefit level is good, but not extravagant. He explained that public sector employees have been scapegoated. This is unfortunate because they care about the work they do and have generally taken lower wages for jobs that are more secure and do have better benefits.
The guests also discussed the bargaining differences between the public sector and the private and what unions need to do to innovate to best represent workers. The need for a responsive collective bargaining system was stressed. Listen to the full interview for all the details.
“Ultimately what is at stake is, as a society, are we going to be on a race to the bottom or are we going to continue to be able to grow and maintain a strong the middle class and have more people realize the American dream?” – Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld