Scott MacKay Commentary: Labor Day and Public Employee Unions

Aug 31, 2018

Labor Day is a federal holiday that honors workers.
Credit RIPR file photo

It’s Labor Day, when we honor workers and the unions that gave them better lives. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this year’s big labor issue is the fate of public employee unions, following asignificant Supreme Court decision. 

The labor movement has been playing defense for more than a generation, as once heavily union manufacturing companies have moved abroad in search of cheaper labor. Labor’s private-sector decline was also fueled by aggressive anti-union tactics by corporations aided by federal  laws that, labor leaders assert, discriminated against workers who sought collective bargaining.

There have been some bright spots for unions. Many more white-collar and skilled workers have organized into unions in recent years, particularly in health care and hospitals. In New England, public employees have been receptive to unions.

These are the folks who police the streets, put out the fires, ensure that drinking water is safe, teach the kids and provide health care to the poor. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court and President Donald Trump’s administration have erected new roadblocks for unions.

In June, a five-to-four high court decision overturned 40 years of precedent by ruling that public unions can no longer collect fees from non-members to cover the costs of representing workers in collective bargaining negotiations and workplace disputes. Public workers previously could withhold fees used for political activities –such as supporting candidates—but had to contribute fees from their paychecks for union representation.

Then last week, Trump decided to cancel scheduled wage increases for all non-military federal workers for 2019. He said the government can’t afford to hike these workers wages.

The Supreme Court decision has energized both union leaders and opponents of public worker unions. In Rhode Island, a libertarian group, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has launched a digital campaign urging state and municipal employees to get information needed to leave unions and save dues money.

The center has aimed at getting teachers to quit their unions. They are telling teachers that leaving the union won’t change their benefits or contract terms. And they claim that the other benefits they get from their unions can be done as effectively outside the union.

An example given by the center’s president, Stephen Skoly of Cranston, is legal fees. If a teacher say, has a grievance over pay or benefits, he or she could be represented by outside lawyers at lower costs.

But this is where things get sticky, says Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, one of the state's two teachers' unions. Say a teacher had a grievance about seniority. An individual teacher and his or her private lawyer could make a deal that contradicts contract terms.

The union’s concern is that allowing workers to willy-nilly cut their own deals with management would eventually undermine contracts, union solidarity and slice into benefits and earnings, Walsh says.

Labor leaders view campaigns that seek to steer employees away from their unions as an assault on hard-won wages and benefits.

“This is a political fight we’re in,” says Walsh.

George Nee, president of the 80,000 member Rhode AFL-CIO, says the Supreme Court decision has given union organizing a new urgency.

“Yes, it’s a threat but we’re also looking at it as an opportunity,” he says.

Nee notes that public employees, particularly teachers, have been organizing across the country in red states to advocate for better pay and benefits, even in so-called right to work states where labor organizing is difficult. Rhode Island unions have been contacting members to explain the benefits of union membership. Some Democratic political officials, including Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and Gov. Gina Raimondo have been supportive of these union efforts.

“We have a solemn obligation to the people who came before us to fight back, and protect these rights for future generations, “said Nee.

Nee’s Labor Day message—“We aren’t going away.”

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard at 6:45 and 8:45 every Monday morning and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at