Making Public Unions Relevant Again

In this column for Isthmus, I argue that Wisconsin’s battered and maligned public employee unions need to fundamentally rethink their reasons for existing.  The answer, I suggest, might be found in the very origins of public employee unionism in the 1930s:

Recently, I spent an afternoon at Memorial Library paging through old master’s theses (by Marver Bernstein, 1940; and Samuel Satterfield, 1961) that detailed the early years of the labor group now known as the Wisconsin State Employees Union. Some of it was downright inspiring.

[Gov. Albert] Schmedeman came into office in 1932 as the first Democratic governor in 38 years. He was hell-bent on firing state employees and hiring his friends. Fearful of the Democrats’ plan to destroy civil service, the nascent state employees association began organizing. Their objectives included a forthright pledge “to extend and uphold the principle of merit and fitness in public employment.” There was also the promise to advance the welfare of state employees.

But organizers took it a step further. They also pledged “to promote efficiency in public services” and to reduce to a minimum “overlapping and duplication of services.” In other words, they focused not just on their own needs, but also on looking out for the taxpayers. They were outlining a mission — a cause — that reached beyond their own enrichment

This is precisely what a newly focused public employee unionism needs today to regain relevance. The hard truth is that the old industrial- union model doesn’t cut it anymore. Public employees aren’t working on a factory floor. The old focus on minutely defined job descriptions, lockstep pay levels and prizing longevity over merit has to give way to a sense of mission and professionalism.

To read more, please go here.

I’ve been writing about the decline of public employee unions even before Gov. Scott Walker gutted them in early 2011.See this cover story in Isthmus, among other pieces that predate labor’s Armageddon.(Sadly the Milwaukee Magazine links appear broken.)

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