A Word (or Two) About Public Sector Collective Bargaining

Source: Joseph Adler, Public Personnel Management, Winter 2006, Volume 35, no. 4

Public Sector Collective Bargaining is a relatively recent phenomenon—its lifecycle can be traced to and indeed may be a lasting legacy of the “baby boomers” entering the public sector workforce in record numbers. Outside of a few traditionally union-friendly or politically progressive jurisdictions, union activity among government employees was virtually unknown and unheard of in the 1950s. During the next two-plus decades, however, union membership rates saw explosive growth so that by 1979 about 38 percent of public employees were either members of or represented by unions. Despite an occasional setback, public sector unions managed to stay close to this rate for the next 27 years. Ironically, the ascendancy of public sector unions almost mirrors the decline of private sector unions; at one time they represented more than one-third of America’s workers; today they represent less than nine percent.

At the initial stages of public sector union organizing there was a robust discussion among practitioners, researchers, and others concerning the changes unionization might cause to the body politic over resource allocation, the determination of public policy, the use of political pressure at the bargaining table and the role of the “public” in bargaining, plus the potential shift in power favoring unionized employees. Acceptance of collective bargaining in government has indeed resulted in changes both at the macro public policy/administration level, and the micro human resource administration level. It is hoped that this special issue rekindles the inquiry and debate both from an academic as well as a practitioner perspective.

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