The Chicago teachers
strike has put Democrats in a difficult position. Teacher unions are the
most powerful constituency in the Democratic Party, but their interests
are ever more clearly at odds with taxpayers and inner-city families.
Chicago is reviving scenes from the last crisis of liberalism in the
1970s, when municipal unions drove many American cities to disorder and
bankruptcy. Where did their power come from?
Before the 1950s, government-employee unions were almost
inconceivable. When the Boston police unionized and went on strike in
1919, the ensuing chaos—rioting and looting—crippled the public-union
idea. Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge became a national hero by
breaking the strike, issuing the dictum: "There is no right to strike
against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." President
Woodrow Wilson called the strike "an intolerable crime against
President Franklin D. Roosevelt also rejected government unionism. He
told the head of the Federation of Federal Employees in 1937 that
collective bargaining "cannot be transplanted into the public service.
The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for
administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer"
because "the employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws."
FDR pointed out the obvious, that the
government is sovereign. If an organization can compel the government to
do something, then that organization will be the real sovereign. Thus
the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935 gave private-sector
unions the power to compel employers to bargain, but the act excluded
government workers. It declared that federal and state and local
governments were not "employers" under its terms.
Postwar prosperity and the great
increase of public employment revived the public union idea. By 1970,
nearly 20% of American workers worked for the government. (In 1900: 4%.)
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees led
the effort to persuade a state to allow public-employee unionization,
and Afscme prevailed in Wisconsin in 1958. New York City and other
cities also permitted their workers to unionize.
President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order 50 years ago that
broke the dam. The order did not permit federal employees to bargain
over wages (these are still set by Congress), or to force workers to
join a union or to strike (no state or city allowed that), but Kennedy's
directive did lead to unionization of the federal workforce. And it
gave great impetus to more liberal state and local laws.
Government-union membership rose tenfold in the 1960s.
Things soon got ugly. The Wagner Act had fomented labor militancy,
notably sit-down strikes in 1937 that disrupted manufacturing and
retarded the economy. But in the late 1960s and 1970s, federal and state
union-promoting laws produced unprecedented strikes by teachers,
garbage collectors, postal workers and others, even though every state
prohibited strikes by public employees.
Striking Chicago public-school teachers on Monday.
Afscme began to arouse resentment from
other union federations—especially the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees
International Union. Afscme's abrasive president, Jerry Wurf, became an
easy target for his opponents. He was said to have advised Baltimore
firefighters to "let Baltimore burn" if union demands were not met; Wurf
was subsequently regarded as generally having a let-it-burn attitude.
In 1976 the Supreme Court derailed a movement to enact the National
Public Employment Relations Law ("a Wagner Act for public employees," as
supporters described it) led by Rep. William Clay of Missouri. The
court held that Congress could not apply federal labor laws to state
employees. The justices stated the obvious, that "the States as states
stand on a quite different footing from an individual or a corporation."
By the end of the 1970s, the budgetary burdens imposed by public
unions had helped revive conservative movements, leading to the
elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Undeterred, William Clay told the Professional Air Traffic Controllers
at Patco's 1980 convention to "revise your political thinking. It should
start with the premise that you have no permanent friends, no permanent
enemies, just permanent interests. It must be selfish and pragmatic."
He told them to "learn the rules of the game," which were "that you
don't put the interest of any other group ahead of your own. What's good
for the federal employees must be interpreted as being good for the
nation." The take-no-prisoners message helps explain why President
Reagan fired and replaced the striking controllers, and why the public
overwhelmingly supported him.
Historians tend to depict the Patco
strike as a replay of the 1919 Boston police strike, with Reagan as the
new Coolidge. But breaking the Patco strike had zero impact on public
unionism. It may have cooled the willingness to strike, but unions
continued to flourish. Public employment and government unionism have
grown more than the population since 1980. The Patco replacements soon
joined the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and carried on
Nor did the breaking of the strike "send a signal" to private
employers to take a hard line against their unions, as some historians
of the time have suggested. The factors responsible for private-union
decline antedated the Patco strike and continued after it. Reagan
ultimately may have even helped the public-employee union movement: By
stoking the nation's economic revival in the 1980s, he made the costs of
public unions begin to seem less onerous, and polls suggested that
American worries about the matter declined.
Public unions do well in flush times like the 1950s and 1960s, but
they suffer when taxpayers feel their true cost, as in the 1970s—and
Mr. Moreno, a professor of history at Hillsdale
College, is the author of "The American State from the Civil War to the
New Deal," forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
A version of this article appeared September
12, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal,
with the headline: How Public Unions Became So Powerful.