Winning Proposal to the Pierce Scholar's Fund: 2014 Competition

Project Title: The Politics of Public-Sector Unionism in the American States

Faculty Sponsors: Robert Mickey

Graduate Student: Christina Kinane

Project Description

Unions may be declining, but they are back in the news. Since 2011, public sector unions have been under assault at the state level throughout the country (Lafer 2013), including in those areas previously thought to be strongholds of the American labor movement. As union density (the share of the workforce that is unionized) in the private sector has now plunged to below seven percent—levels not seen since the 1880s—public sector union density remains above 35 percent (BLS 2013). Why has this assault occurred? What explains variation in its success? And what are its consequences for union density, unions’ political influence within the Democratic Party, and the effects of unionization on political participation (Kerrissey and Schofer 2013; Leighley and Nagler 2007), and for the political influence of American workers?

In important respects, the current assault on public sector unions is a nationwide phenomenon with national causes—or at least national precipitants. The emergence of a nationwide right-wing populist backlash and an increasingly radical wing of the Republican party (Skocpol and Williamson 2012; Mann and Ornstein 2011), especially in combination with severe fiscal pressures on state budgets, have softened the ground for attacks through state legislatures on public sector unions by state-level activists long interested in launching them. And networks of conservative donors and corporate lobbies have invested financial and other resources in particular state-level struggles (Freeman and Han 2012). State-level activists are also capitalizing on a development that predates the financial crisis, recession, and relatively jobless recovery that has followed: the attack on teachers’ unions as degrading the quality of public education (Moe 2011). Thus, there are certainly national-level forces at work, and in this sense the attack on public sector unions recalls the term limits movement of the early 1990s (Rausch 2003). But there remains substantial variation across the country in whether attacks have occurred, in the severity of proposed restrictions on collective bargaining, employment protection, and other matters, and in the success of these attacks.