Imagining Public Work

The LA Times recently ran an op-ed by Joseph A. McCartin (Historian at Georgetown University and author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America) that briefly summarizes the origins of public sector unions in the US. As McCartin points out, for most of their history, public sector unions were not at all contentious, and in fact enjoyed broad political support. Now, public sector unions, and by extension workers, are often blamed for state deficits and the waste of tax-payers’ money (see the comments below the linked article, for example). As McCartin argues, however, this is a belief that isn’t largely supported by evidence:

There is little correlation between states that have public sector collective bargaining and states with large deficits. North Carolina, which lacks collective bargaining, projects a 10% budget shortfall for fiscal year 2013, nearly three times as great as that of New York (3.5%), the most densely unionized state.

UIUC’s own Timothy Cain has written on the history of unions within higher education, finding that the understanding of academic labor as “work” has been complicated from the beginning. He notes for example that, “faculty have, for the most part, been employees, we just don’t like to admit it.”

There are many fronts in the struggle for collective bargaining, especially within the public sector. The connection between (seemingly) popular beliefs about state-funded social programs and public sector workers is, perhaps, one of them. The ways we understand our own connections to the state and the value of our own labor has an impact on how we value the work and lives of others in some complicated ways, as a recent NY Times piece discusses.