Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Peering into the Bird’s Nest of Public Service Unions

Brian Dijkema


December 7, 2012

By Brian Dijkema

The Chicago teacher’s strike is over, but contention between governments and public service unions is far from over. In fact, given that industrial nations in Europe and North America are swimming in red ink and looking for savings at almost every level, it’s plausible that strife between public sector unions and governments will become the new normal.  

Labor strife in the public sector tends to be more divisive than strife in the private sector. The fault line often falls between those who think public sector unions are publicly unaccountable organizations which hamstring elected officials, and those who consider them the protectors of government programs, and thus protectors of the public good.

But are these characterizations fair? How should we think about public sector unions? How do we make judgments about their activities in the public square and for their members?

The usual place to start is to ask the question that those in labor relations have been asking since Freeman and Medoff wrote their famous book: what do unions do? But, as noted in an earlier article in these pages, this fails to provide a framework in which we can speak normatively about the actions of unions.

The better question, I think, is what should a union do? And to answer that question, it’s necessary to ask what a union is.  

So, what is a union? The answer to that question is not as easy to answer as it seems. A labor union is a complex organization with a social function: It’s held together not primarily by law, but by the workers themselves who organize around the concept of solidarity or mutual support. Thus, even an organization like Solidarnosch, which was illegal in Poland, could still be considered a trade union. Likewise with workers’ organizations which existed prior to the Wagner Act. But it also has an economic function: One of its purposes is to ensure that workers earn enough money to put bread on their tables and pay for other necessities. Unions also have a legal role: to create and enforce rules which limit and shape the actions of not only workers but management. There is a reason why unions use (and, frankly, abuse) the word justice so much. A collective agreement is, after all, primarily a private legal contract. But, we also have to acknowledge that there is an element of power which is integral to unions. They exercise this power in a variety of ways, sometimes in ways that are right, and sometimes in ways that are wrong.

Previously, I set out some guidelines by which we can evaluate how unions exercise their power in strikes, but that picture remains somewhat incomplete.

A fuller picture will not only understand what unions are in their own right, but also their placement within the institutional structure in which they are embedded. How we think normatively about a trade union in the steel industry—with a major multinational business corporation like ArcelorMittal, for instance—will differ in some respects from how we think about a trade union at a hospital, a school or a major retailer. And, in turn, how we think about a trade union’s role in private hospitals will differ subtly from that of a union in a public hospital.

And, as if things weren’t complicated enough, even among the public services, there are subtle differences between the way we think about trade unions. There is, for instance, a reason why the military is a strictly non-union environment! 

In each case, how we think normatively about trade unions and their action is shaped by the goal of the organization within which the union works.

It is difficult, therefore, to offer too many blanket statements about the actions of public sector trade unions. But, within the confines of the space provided here, there is a basic point which will set the table for further reflection.

When asking questions about public sector unions, especially in the United States, our evaluation of public sector trade unions must work hand in hand with our evaluation of the state. In other words, we must ask the question of whether the actions of a trade union reflect, help or hinder the state in its pursuit of public justice, and whether the actions of the state in relation to its employees are, in their own right, reflective of the same goal.


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”