By 1970, nearly 20% of American workers were employed by government.
By PAUL MORENO
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 civilization.”
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 60 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.
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 Patco’s work.
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 today.
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.