The battle in Wisconsin over collective bargaining rights for public employees points up the key differences between public and private sector unions.
Anyone who’s familiar with unions like the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters and the Steelworkers might be surprised to hear that public employee unions don’t have the same rights. That’s because public employee unions in individual states are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Public employee unions’ rights depend on the state where they are located.
Here are the answers to some questions about the debate.
How many Americans are members of labor unions?
A. About 12 percent of Americans belong to unions; of that group, about 8 percent are members of private sector unions. About 33 percent of public sector employees are union members. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a summary of labor union data here.
How long have public sector unions been around?
A. Wisconsin gave some public sector employees the right to collective bargaining in 1959. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave most federal government employees the same right.
Who has the right to strike?
A. For many private sector unions, the right to strike is protected by federal law. The conditions under which a strike can take place may vary. For instance, unions operating under the Railway Labor Act, like those at airlines, must go through a waiting period once a contract expires before they are allowed to walk off the job.
Public sector unions may or may not have the right to strike. It depends on what unions have negotiated with state governments, and the state laws that apply to those unions. For example, teachers, police officers and fire fighters in a number of states do not have the right to strike. Even when public sector unions have the right to strike, employers can threaten to fire them if they do not return to work. President Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 after they ignored his order to go back on the job.
Which topics are subject to collective bargaining?
A. Private sector unions’ contracts are negotiated between the union and employers. Essentially, there are not limits on the topics that can be discussed, unless the union and the employers agree to exclude them. For example, the U.A.W. has agreed in the past to place a moratorium on national strikes.
Public sector unions may be limited to specific areas. For example, they may not be able to negotiate on pensions or health care benefits, if those are uniform for all state employees.
Could an employer force a private sector union to give up collective bargaining rights?
Once a union is certified by the NLRB in the work place, an employer cannot arbitrarily take such rights away. Workers would need to decertify the union as their bargaining representative. The NLRB would supervise a decertification election.
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