The Growing Rift Between Public and Private Sector Unions

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is coasting to reelection with only partial support from organized labor. While many private unions remain in his corner, the state’s major government unions are either declining to support Cuomo’s bid for a second term or have endorsed a challenger. In this respect, Cuomo 2014 resembles New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s hugely successful reelection campaign last year. As Steve Malanga detailed here, Christie received enthusiastic support from building trades unions, whereas public sector unions never forgave him for his first term initiatives on pension and K-12 reform.

Any news about a private v. public split in the labor movement is encouraging, because influence peddling by government unions is far more troubling than when it’s done by private sector unions. Market forces keep corporations, and thus their unions, in check, but cities are monopolies and never go out of business. Government unionization thwarts the will of the voters, by forcing politicians to implement policy through the collective bargaining process instead of legislation. Taxpayers should not have to pay workers extra for administrative changes such as drug testing or a new teacher evaluation system.

But will the trend continue?  Many political coalitions don’t outlive their standard bearers. Bridgegate certainly seems to be testing Christie’s hold over his. And Cuomo is a uniquely talented politician, as attested by the polls, his warchest, his strong support on the left and right, and his ability to make the New York State legislature look effective or at least less dysfunctional.

Here are four factors to consider in considering the potential that other blue state politicians might split the labor movement, to the detriment of public sector unions.

First, recessions are helpful, because they stimulate more conflict between government unions and Democrats than private sector unions and Democrats. Most priorities of private labor—minimum wage, paid leave, making it easier to organize—can be pushed regardless of economic conditions. The arguments may change (“…now more than ever…”) but the goals and their chances at becoming reality probably do not.

As employers, governments must balance their budgets, and so, as policymakers, they simply can’t be as generous with teachers and police unions during recessions. An austerity budgeting regime puts unions on the defensive and sows distrust between them and Democrats. (“Is he doing this pension reform to shore up the retirement system, which is what he told us, or so that he can brag to the business community?”)

Second, the private/public distinction breaks down in the case of private unions that seek rents that effectively transform them into public employee unions. Project Labor Agreements and other union-friendly bidding restrictions on public construction projects make government workers out of employees of unionized construction firms. To regard 1199 SEIU, the most powerful union in New York State, as a private union like the steel or autoworkers would be to overlook the government’s outsized role in healthcare finance.

Third, the Cuomo model is more threatening to unions than the Christie model. Though statistically normal, Republican governorships in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey are still hard not to interpret as aberrations, more the result of Democrats’ bungling than a political paradigm shift. The party remains weak. A blue state Democrat proving he can win and govern without unions provides a model for others to replicate whereas Republican success always seems sui generis.

Fourth, government unions have benefited from the weakness of private unions, which has made them more indispensable. Until private unions can do more for Democrats in the way of money and ground troops, politicians who care about being tagged as anti-worker will be wary of alienating AFSCME, NEA and  AFT.

About the Author:  Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership. Steve received his doctorate in political science in Boston College and previously was a Senior Research Associate at the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. His research focuses on public employee unions, retirement benefits, public finance, and urban policy.

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