Q&A on Public vs Private Sector Unions

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.

Associated Press photo

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.

Vote in our poll on the Wisconsin situtation

Do you have more questions about the situation in Wisconsin? Post them below in comments.

12 Replies to “Q&A on Public vs Private Sector Unions”

  1. Although I agree with Walker regarding pensions and health insurance cost, and the need to have Public sector workers increase their share of the cost as long as he is proposing that all State employees do the same; not leaving any sector out of the ruling. I also have to wonder if Walker is going to lead by example and push that even the Govenorship and Senate departments do the same, what benefits do they currently enjoy that could be trimmed to lower the cost on the public sector. I would also like to see a wage freeze for these departments, I’m tired of hearing how they vote themselves raises.

  2. Yes…. how about this question that this article seems to have intentionally left out “Could an employer force a PUBLIC sector union to give up collective bargaining rights?”

  3. I’ll help you with this question based entirely on the article above. The answer to your question is “Yes” and for the following reasons…

    A) Regarding the removal of collective bargaining rights… “Once a union is certified by the NLRB in the work place, an employer cannot arbitrarily take such rights away.”
    B) “…public employee unions in individual states are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act.”
    C) Public Employee Unions can have their collective bargaining rights removed (or in the case of wisconsin, limited) without violating any type of law.

    As the article points out, the workers still have a right to strike, but the employer (the state governement) has the right to fire them.

    Your next question might be….”well why aren’t Public Employee Unions covered under the NLRB?”

    If you can’t see a problem (and I mean Constitutionally) with Federal mandate protecting State employees, then there isn’t much anyone will be able to do to reason with you.

  4. If you look into the matter, you’ll actually see that Walker, the Assembly and the Senate are all affected equally by these measures, in the exact same way (and percentage) as the rest of the state government workers.

  5. Why does the government need to mandate laws for private employers to reckognize unions in the first place? Isn’t it in the employers best interest to reckognize such unions, unless the unions are being unfair? Don’t all unions inherently have these “levers” by being a collection that can strike at any time?

  6. Also, does it seem logical that teachers, policemen, public officials, etc., even have the right to strike, given the public safety aspect. ty

  7. Since they cannot strike as stated above, why are treating them (giving them bargaining rights) as if they CAN strike. I just dont understand…

  8. No it doesn’t! Many of these individuals are not paid under the same system. Police and Fire were exempt from these changes as well…. they are public employees too. The water treatment employee is as deserving as a police officer… keeping your water clean. County road inspectors or DMV employees are just as important as well.

    Delphi, you are not smart enough to answer any of these questions. Leave it to experts in this field. Go back and watch FAUX NEWS.

  9. Let me guess fightinback, your a loser in a union, and since that is going to be your whole career, your pissed.

  10. The dumb asses who keep voting for more government freebees will kill America. They are the welfare crowd. They are the ones who votes for the Kenyon.

  11. You’re = “you are”
    Your = indicates possession

    With love from a Wisconsin teacher who was in a union and is not a loser.

  12. Was going to make the same correction and I am not a teacher or in a union…And yes, I thank a teacher that I can read, NO, I will not thank a teacher for screaming on┬áraising my taxes more so that they can retire in a better status than average Americans are in… there is plenty of money to run the schools and teach the kids, the lionshare of the budgets is pensions… sorry, the pension plan is going the way of the Dodo bird in America, enjoy it while you can, the only thing a state is bound to paying is pensions to already retired folks – not to those who have yet to retire, start saving and investing like the rest of us…. how about can you spell UNSUSTAINABLE?

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