Time for Government and Public Workers to Be Friends Again

A lost theme in improving public services—labor-management cooperation—has begun to receive long-overdue attention in recent weeks. Over the weekend The Washington Post gave front-page coverage to a Maryland teachers’ union collaborating with school authorities to accelerate curricular reform and improve teacher performance while disciplining ineffective teachers. Last month, Nicholas Kristof wrote approvingly in the New York Times of a comparable collaboration in New Haven. 

These examples hardly reflect a new development. In 2001, Toledo won an Innovations in American Government award from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government for its collaboration of organized teachers and school administrators. Parts of the Toledo Plan were replicated in other large Ohio cities. When Indianapolis decided to “contract out” some street repair work, the city’s unions persuaded Mayor Stephen Goldsmith to allow them to bid on the contract. The city workers won the contracts and saved the city money while keeping their jobs.

The role of public sector unions is likely to be a big theme this election cycle. National fallout from Wisconsin will be one focus, as voters decide sometime this summer whether to replace Governor Scott Walker after he sponsored efforts last year to restrict the rights of public sector unions. In Ohio, voters last fall rejected Senate Bill 5, which would have sharply curtailed collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. The issue is sure to continue to play a big role in the swing state.

In the short run, union leaders and their allies seem to have benefited from the overreach of Republican governors elected two years ago who thought they had a mandate to undermine public sector unions. These governors may have miscalculated: the attacks on labor have helped mobilize supporters who otherwise might have remained dormant, and public opinion seems to have turned against them.

However, public sector unions should do their part to avoid partisan conflict in the long run. Good wages and generous employment benefits depend upon popular support for public services, especially during an economic downturn. After all, a substantial majority of expenditures for most local and state public services go towards salaries, benefits, and pensions. 

Members of the public learn about public services mostly through two scenarios: when a particular city or state worker makes a mistake so intolerable it becomes newsworthy; or when the media report on public employees’ collective efforts to increase wages or resisting cutbacks. From what gets reported, public workers often look either incompetent or exclusively self-interested. In these cases it is very easy to characterize union demands as being antithetical to the public interest.

In reality, most teachers, police officers, and other public workers do a good job under difficult circumstances, and most contract renewals are negotiated behind the scenes without public notice.

We need a different sort of relationship between organized public employees and voters, and the recent examples of labor-management cooperation show how to do it right.

Public sector managers discover that they can make substantial progress in reform efforts—improving public services, saving jobs, and reducing or containing costs—if they harness the knowledge and initiative of their core workers. This is hardly surprising: front-line workers and operatives on the shop floor know what is and isn’t working, and how to improve efficiency.

The trick for managers is to tap that expertise. But it takes more than a “suggestion box” to enlist workers in efficiency reforms. Workers fear that management may use new efficiency gains to cut back hours or eliminate jobs. To achieve labor-management cooperation, managers seeking workers’ cooperation and flexibility have to demonstrate respect for labor rights negotiated in good faith.

In the current period of budget stringency, as public sector workers are scapegoated and their longstanding rights to collective bargaining are questioned, it may be helpful to recognize that community and state officials can find better ways to engage the public work force.

This will be particularly true in health care reform, a field in which labor-management cooperation has been particularly effective in reducing costs and improving service quality. In nine states and the District of Columbia, over 90,000 union members work with managers and doctors at Kaiser Permanente, often cited as a model for health care innovation, to improve health care delivery. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, helped create the labor-management partnership at Kaiser earlier in her career.

Over 17 million people work in state and local government, with over one-third represented by unions. In the heat of the election campaigns they are depicted as a source of conflict, or an obstacle to fiscal health. We need a more constructive way to think about those teachers, police officers, social workers, accountants, and clerks who do the work of our state and local governments. As cities and states have repeatedly discovered, labor-management cooperation provides an alternative and promising approach.


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