General Question

cockswain's avatar

Can someone help me understand the pros and cons of public vs. private unions?

Asked by cockswain (15271points) February 20th, 2011

I lived in WI for a long time, and a lot of my buddies are out there protesting. Before this, I never really considered any distinction between unions, but this issue has caused me to notice differences. I’d like to know more, so please describe the good and bad points of both, putting them in a historical context if you wish.

Please do not just take one side. If you describe the negative points, also describe the positive. Otherwise I may get the impression the info you are giving me is biased and not informed about both sides.

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28 Answers

SmashTheState's avatar

The real division between unions isn’t public VS private, it’s craft VS industrial. Fair notice of conflict of interest: I’m a card-carrying Wobbly delegate. The Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World) are an industrial union; we refer to our model of organizing as “solidarity unionism” and the craft union model as “bureaucratic unionism.”

Trade unionism (or bureaucratic unionism, as we refer to it) is based on the idea of organizing by occupation. For example, all the factories in town might share a machinist union where all the machinists belong to one union, then all the janitors in their own janitorial workers union. When it comes time to negotiate a contract or to grieve a complaint, the workers talk to their shop steward, who communicates their need to the union local; if the local needs additional support, it kicks it upstairs to the national level, and a negotiator comes down to your workplace to represent you, paid with your union dues.

Industrial unionism (or solidarity unionism) operates on a very different model. Instead of organizing on occupational lines, organizing occurs across the entire workplace. So, for example, the entire factory belongs to one union instead of several. This means that the bosses can’t play one union off against another. In fact, sometimes they’ll play a union off against itself under craft unionism, such as we’ve seen recently in Sudbury, where the bosses forced the Steelworkers Union to scab against itself using one local’s collective agreement to force it to scab against a different local — of the same union! With industrial unionism, this can’t happen: when one trade walks off, all walk off. It is based on the principle of the general strike, the Holy Grail of organized labour. Solidarity unionism means that there are no paid bureaucrats; instead of having specialized negotiation teams, every worker is expected to learn how to negotiate for themselves, and organize collectively at a decentralized local level, while obtaining support through GMBs (General Member Branches) for each city, ROCs (Regional Organizing Committees) for each geographical area, and IUs (Industrial Unions) for each individual craft, all within the same union. Because of its reliance on self-organization, a crust of bureaucracy never forms within the union, which makes it extremely resistant to bloat or corruption. It also means union dues are very minimal. In the IWW, for example, dues can be as low as $5 a month, and are capped at a maximum $36 per month.

You can guess which model of organizing I favour.

cockswain's avatar

OK, so applying your description to the bill in WI, to what union do the, say, teachers belong? Can the teachers in the union work for a private school or a public school (which would be a craft union, right), or do all “public” employees (teachers, nurses, etc…) all currently have a solidarity union? Do I have that right? Correct any mistakes.

SmashTheState's avatar

@cockswain Public unions would be closer to the model of solidarity unionism than private unions, yes. This is because public unions tend to have a lot more trades under their umbrella than their private counterparts. Under regular circumstances, the general public wouldn’t notice much difference; it’s only when you have general labour unrest that the real differences come into play. This is because industrial unions organize more horizontally than vertically. The theory of the “general strike” is that the boss class is forced to deal with workers as a whole rather than simply satisfying the need of one trade, potentially at the expense of another.

As a practical matter, we’ll use the example of schools. A school requires several different trades in order to operate. Obviously you have the teachers, but you also have, for example, a janitorial staff. If each belongs to a different trade union, they can be played off against each other. The teachers, for example, can be told that if the janitors strike, there is less money for them, and therefore they must be willing to cross a janitorial picket line as part of their collective agreement. If both the teachers and the janitors are part of the same union, both can and will refuse to cross each other’s pickets, which makes the position of both stronger.

Note, however, that even though these public unions may organize industrially, they may still be (and probably are) bureaucratic unions in the sense that rather than negotiate themselves, they rely on representatives from their union national to negotiate on their behalf. From my perspective, being organized industrially is preferable to craft unionism, but their reliance on outside negotiators leaves them vulnerable to betrayal by their national. The politics of organized labour can be quite ugly.

cockswain's avatar

Excellent, thanks. I’m glad I chose you among the others I sent this question.

ETpro's avatar

Unions have dopne a great deal of good for American workers and for the quality of life here in general. They gained strength during the gilded age when robber barons were amassing huge monopolies and exploiting workers almost like slaves. We owe the fact we have a middle class today in large extent to the work of unions. Unions were instrumental in ending child labor, in fighting for a living wage, in securing benefits such as health insurance and pension funds, and in ensuring workplace safety.

The coal mine owners in Appalachia were so determined to resist unions that they hired thugs from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to come in and severely beat any workers talking of organizing. Lynchings and shootings of workers were commonplace. This was at a time where as many as 10 miners a day died in mine accidents, and the owners wanted no costly changes such as improved ventilation, escape shafts, safe rooms and other safety measures. There profits were important enough to them that they were willing to let workers die and even have workers murdered to ensure business as usual. The situation eventually led to what was called the West Virginia Mine Wars, where Federal Troops had to be sent in to stop the massacring of miners, and the workers eventually won the right to collectively bargain.

But power corrupts in union bosses hands just as readily as it does in corporate bosses hands. Unions grew powerful and pushed for wages and benefits that eventually brought numerous industries to an end, with work moving off-shore where wages were much lower. Unions covered for inept and lazy workers, preventing them from being fired when there was every justification for firing them. Featherbedding become commonplace, with unions requiring employers to keep workers on the payroll even when their function had long since been replaced by automation.

As to public and private unions, workers have reasonable needs for collective bargaining on both fronts. I think well-run, reasonable unions can serve a very valuable purpose in both settings. But we need to think through ways to prevent both union and management abuses. We need a balance. And that balance is particularly vital in public unions, where wage demands don’t threaten management profitability, but can just be passed on to taxpayers.

cockswain's avatar

The coal mine owners in Appalachia were so determined to resist unions that they hired thugs from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to come in and severely beat any workers talking of organizing.

I saw a movie about this event, I can’t remember what it was called. It was a good movie though.

But power corrupts in union bosses hands just as readily as it does in corporate bosses hands.

Yes, this is a sad fact about human nature and arguably causes the bulk of the world’s problems. Well said.

But we need to think through ways to prevent both union and management abuses. We need a balance.

I contemplated discussing this here, but I think this is a topic I intend to discuss on a new thread. How best to reform the balance of power in union vs employers may possibly be applied in how best to reform the balance of power between business vs. gov’t. Just an idle thought.

Edit: Matewan, that was the movie.

SmashTheState's avatar

@ETpro First, the “corruption” you’re talking about never happened to unions like the IWW. It was and is inviolable because of its structure. You have only a single paid member of the union, and that member is elected by the general membership. Furthermore, there are term limits for all elected positions to prevent power blocs from forming. And importantly, the IWW refuses to have anything to do with employers; most unions collaborate with the bosses so that union dues are removed from the paycheque and collected by the employer, then given to the union. The IWW collects its dues directly from the membership. If the union should ever, through any means, become corrupt or ineffectual, the membership can bring the whole organization down through the simple expedient of witholding dues. In addition to all of this, members of the IWW are constitutionally forbidden as members of the IWW from promoting any political or anti-political ideology. Of course, as individuals we are free to support and promote anything we want, but, for example, while I am an anarchosyndicalist (as are most Wobblies in practice) I cannot mention that fact when I’m acting as spokesperson for my union. This means backroom deals between the IWW and political parties of one stripe or another simply can’t occur.

As far as featherbedding and the rest goes, the IWW has no interest in “better wages.” Perhaps it would be best if I simply quoted the preamble to our constitution, which is printed right on every membership card, as written by our founders in 1905:

‘The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.”

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.’

bkcunningham's avatar

@cockswain I really like your question. I am busy today with my 19 month old granddaughter and really don’t have time to devote to an honest, fair answer at the moment. I am watching the answers and discussion with great interest though.

I was born and raised in the coalfields of Virginia. I was married for 17 years to a steel worker who was a member of the UMWA. I know Rich Trumka. I have gone to funerals of friends who died in coalmines, both union and nonunion. I lived in Rhode Island where unions are still very strong. I know firsthand, not just textbook accounts, of the pros and cons of both private and public unions. It isn’t always as cut and dry as it may seem.

Anyway, I hope this doesn’t get flagged and deleted. I just wanted to say this is a good question and I’m watching with interest when I get a second.

Jaxk's avatar


Interesting motto. So I have to assume with capitalism as the enemy, socialism or communism would be the goal. You are aware that those systems haven’t worked so well in the past. And countries that have those systems, the workers aren’t faring so well.

But that is not the question. Public vs private unions would be the issue. The whole idea of collective bargaining is based on pitting the interests of one group against the interests of the other to strike a compromise. It is assumed that the management would have the profit motive and that would subjugate the workers pay and conditions. Workers on the other hand would have better pay and working conditions as the prime motivator and profits would be subordinate to that. The negotiation would therefore strike a balance between the two.

Public unions have some particular issues not present in the private sector. The profit motive is absent even though there is a monetary issue. It’s not completely gone but not the prime motivator for management. In addition, in the public sector, union workers play a substantial role in both crafting and implementing legislation that would affect thier bargaining power. This piece of the puzzle allows them to not only directly affect the negotiations of that group or segment but of all industries and segments of the economy.

The effects of government unions are broad and the ability to counter those effects is quite limited. Politicians are not only biased but operating as representatives of both sides. Given the huge political sway garnered by the unions, this is a scary thought.

mammal's avatar

@Jaxk Communism has often proven itself to be notoriously anti-union, seriously, stop embarrassing yourself and read, read, READ :)

SmashTheState's avatar

@Jaxk I… don’t even know where to start. First, you clearly have no idea what terms like “capitalism,” “socialism,” and “communism” mean. Capitalism is defined by the metaphysical ability of individuals to “own” the means of production. That is, a small group of people are given the ability, through coersion, to monopolize the ability to produce wealth: this is the owning class. All others must become the working class, who are granted (or not granted) the ability to produce the necessities of life by those with exclusive access to the means of production. Seeing as the concept of capitalism is only 150 years old, there are clearly many, many other ways of organizing a society which are neither communist nor socialist.

I’m not even going to attempt to explain the difference between, say, State socialism and anarchocommunism. I get the feeling it wouldn’t matter much to you anyway.

You have failed entirely to recognize that unions have nothing to do with collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is something that unions are capable of doing, not something which has anything to do with their purpose and function. A union is, in essence, a group of workers standing together for mutual aid and protection. It has nothing to do with wages, negotiations with bosses, or recognition by the State. You will note, for example, that the IWW often completely ignores official government rules for the registration of a union. We may do so as an organizing tactic, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with our work as a union.

And mister, if you think a bunch of white-collar craft unionists and their business suit bureaucrats are scary, you’ll fill your tighty whiteys when the Wobblies come calling. You ever hear of the Centralia Massacre? The Battle of Blair Mountain? The Wobblies have never had a lot of members; even at our largest, before the mass deportations and the imprisonment of our entire leadership, we never had more than 200,000 members — but the IWW has always fought well above its weight class. This is because the IWW has been fearlessly at the front of every labour struggle for the last century. We were the first to unionize women, the first to unionize blacks and immigrants, and during the Great Depression we’d organize the men in work camps to fight for their civil rights and humane conditions. Once, every hobo on the continent had a Wobbly card and if you tried to hop a train and couldn’t show them your IWW red card, they’d pitch you right back off.

Ever heard the song Solidarity Forever? Ours. Union Maid? Ours too. So is Pie In the Sky and Power in the Union. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any labour song in the last 100 years which wasn’t created by the IWW. It was the IWW which won the 8 hour workday. (You’re welcome.) The famous phrase “An injury to one is an injury to all,” used by labour and social justice groups everywhere is not only ours, but comes straight out of our constitution.

What do Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, Noam Chomsky, Dorothy Day, Jim Thomson, Honus Wagner, Gary Snyder, Mother Jones, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn all have in common? They were (or are) all Wobblies.

Your conception of what a “union” is has been grossly distorted by the tiny segment of the organized labour community which collaborates with the bosses rather than struggling tooth and nail against them. To casually disregard the massive revolutionary underpinnings of the labour movement is to discard the iceberg while pointing to the cubes in your drinking glass.

Jaxk's avatar


Yes it is. So what do you replace capitalism with? That is the question. If you have an answer I’d love to hear it. Otherwise your quipping is not useful.

Jaxk's avatar


Wow. A couple of minor points. First of all, capitalism has been around since the first caveman killed two animals and exchanged one with his neighbor for a new club. And his means of production were not coerced from his follow man. Is this what you guys really believe? But I am impressed that you guys wrote all the songs.

SmashTheState's avatar

@Jaxk It’s not my place to educate you on basic economics and political science. Suffice to say you are completely, utterly, and totally wrong. “Trade” predates capitalism by about 4000 years. Only 4000 years because “trade” only became possible with the creation of the concept of property, and property did not exist prior to the agrarian revolution. So your putative cavemen not only were not capitalists, they were not even capable of trade.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Jaxk To reinforce what @SmashTheState said, and coming at it from the position of an anthropologist, non-agricultural peoples have never engaged in anything close to capitalism, but rather across the board engage in gift economies (which in my opinion is a form of socialism that makes Marxism look juvenile by comparison). So even your example of trading a club for some extra food is completely wrong. I won’t even bother to correc the rest of the ethnocentrism.

@SmashTheState Although I see you’re using ‘trade’ to mean something very specific, I feel I should point out that we have lots of evidence for paleolithic and mesolithic trade networks that were complex and sometimes spanned continents. The main difference between trade made by hunter-gatherer-gardeners and agrarian peoples is that the former never really trades in essentials, but instead typically exchanging novel crafts and sometimes particularly good tools.

I’ll catch up on the rest of the thread later. Looks quite interesting.

Jaxk's avatar


So your contention is that until we trasitioned from hunting/gathering to farming we could not have traded anything because (I guess) we didn’t own anything. Therefore the animals we killed would not have been exchanged for anything.

That’s quite a theory. A bit proposterous but hey, who am I to criticize.

ragingloli's avatar

except for the fact that those “cavemen” lived together in tribes, pooled their resources together, hunted together and then shared the spoils of the hunt with the tribe

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Jaxk Read the link I just posted. In fact, it is absolutely correct that hunting and gathering people don’t trade food.

SmashTheState's avatar

@incendiary_dan I think we’ll probably end up disagreeing on this. I am a proponent of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory, that consciousness is only about 4000 years old and that stone age tribes did not (and do not) have anything like what we would recognize as a sense of “I”. Property is a metaphysical impossibility without individual identity. It would be like calling the exchange of gases in the lungs a trade network.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@SmashTheState We’d definitely disagree, because that’s racist bullshit. Read any ethnographies on “stone age” people, or even ask any indigenous person, particularly those that still preserve their language.

SmashTheState's avatar

@incendiary_dan Racist? It has nothing to do with race. Even if it did, I’ve never made any expression of superiority about consciousness over the bicameral mind. There have been many criticisms of bicameral mind theory, but I don’t believe racism is one of them. There is, in fact, a great deal of medical and scientific support which has emerged since Jaynes first proposed it. But we’re getting a bit off topic here, and we are in the general section. We should probably move this to private.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@SmashTheState C’mon man, I’d expect you of all people to understand that racism and ethnocentrism are inherently linked. But yea, this is general, so mum’s the word.

Jaxk's avatar


Read the link. Have no problem with your gift economies. Have some problem that anything else might be excluded but we are a bit off topic. My original point, which was that exchange and specifically exchange for profit or to better your living conditions, was more than 150 years old. If you all feel I went too far back in time, so be it. I really didn’t intend to trigger this to be a discussion of when we developed our sense of “I”.

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ETpro's avatar

@SmashTheState Sorry to get back to this so late. I see you have stirred up a hornet’s nest with your defense of the Wobbly movement. I have to admit I do not yet know enough about it to express an informed opinion. I share many of the rexervations that others have expressed. But I do recognize the problems with capitalism as it has evolved in the USA, and with consumerism which seems to go hand-in-hand with it.

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Jaxk's avatar

Here is an article that talks about the differences in law between public and private unions. Not a lot of detail but provides the general idea (last section).

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