“A Wagner Act for Public Employees”: Labor’s Deferred Dream and the Rise of Conservatism, 1970-1976

Source: Joseph A. McCartin, Journal of American History, Vol. 95 no. 1, June 2008
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From the abstract:
The explosive rise of public sector unions in the United States in the 1960s and the early 1970s resembled in many ways the breakthrough of industrial unionism in the 1930s. The unionization of teachers, police officers, fire fighters, secretaries, sanitation workers, and other government employees was every bit as sudden and unexpected as the depression-era industrial union upsurge had been. Membership in public sector unions grew tenfold between 1955 and 1975, topping four million by the early 1970s. Moreover, newly organized government workers behaved just as militantly as did auto and steel workers a generation earlier. In 1958 there were a mere 15 public sector strikes recorded in the United States; in 1975 the number hit 478. It is little wonder then that so many observers compared public sector unionism to the rise decades before of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Describing a scene reminiscent of a famous history of the 1930s by Irving Bernstein, the journalist Irwin Ross suggested in 1968 that the upsurge in government workers’ activism had created a “turbulent state” by the late 1960s. Ralph J. Flynn, a lobbyist for the fastest growing public sector union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), also used a depression-era benchmark. Surveying AFSCME’s prospects in 1974 he concluded that “today is 1934 in the public sector.” And, when a Pennsylvania state official tried to understand the unionization of state workers, he also drew on history: “We went through this in the ’30s in the private sector,” he explained. “Now we are going through it in the public.”

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