There is no clearer sign of a global economy than the pressure presently being put on public sector workers. From riots in Athens to furloughs in Albany to anticipated layoffs among public sector workers in the UK, unionized public sector workers are under siege. What is labor to do?
For decades, there was a divide between private and public sector workers. Those in the public sector saw no need to fight private workers’ fights, such as those that relate to trade policy. But, as the private sector workforce has declined around the world, and as de-industrialization has increased in the Western globalized economy, the percentage of unionized workers has increased among the public sector just while it has decreased among the private sector.
The problem is that employers for the public sector are local, state, and federal governments, and their coffers get filled by taxpayers. At a time when workers are hurting and when unions are shrinking and largely unpopular, it’s extremely difficult for unions to make a good case for maintaining their standards and their workforce as is.
But here are four things that unions can do:
First, there must be more private-sector organizing, whether in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe. And there needs to be organizing in new sectors, not just the traditional sectors.
Second, labor must work with community organizations, non-profits, and NGOS to make clear that they support the public good, not simply a cut-and-dry response to maintaining workers’ contracts as is. This means that when they argue against furloughs, they need to also argue about the need for families to have health coverage, child care, clean streets, decent public education for their kids, etc.–all of the things that the public sector does.
Third, they need to explore more public-private partnerships that make sense for their workers who, after all, are members of the communities in which they live and use the same public services.
Fourth, they should start campaigns like the living wage campaign. This may seem counter-intuitive at a time of downsizing. But, in fact, a campaign like that is not counter-intuitive at all. Living wages will stop a drain on public services–which, of course, come from taxes.
We, as a left, should be messaging with the labor movement about how to create communities and societies that create a stable public sector that answers the needs of the community and the country.