Political scientists and economists have widely studied the collective action phenomenon. The focus has been mainly on three major fields: social movements, insurgency and labor unions. A transversal and shared characteristic of these different angles is the influence of the public opinion. Public opinion has played a major role in either supporting or opposing economic aspirations of any kind of interest groups. Furthermore, the current virtual integration of the society -via electronic channels of information- has increased the level of knowledge about collective action organization to the extent that labor unions and interests groups’ agreements get usually under public opinion scrutiny. Thus, public sector personnel managers must first understand the logic of the collective action in order to realize how some categories of employments are affected -specially the hiring process for temporary employees and services. In order to illustrate the interaction between public opinion, public sector personnel managers and labor unions demands, this essay takes a look at the most recent bargaining issue between two large collective action organizations in United States: The Chamber of Commerce and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. on the case of the Guest Worker program in the context of immigration reform.
The essay concludes that public opinion and high quality information play a major role in labor-related negotiations, regardless of the organization’s private or public nature. The first part of this essay briefly reviews the historical context in which collective action organizations raised and declined in United States. The second section illustrates an example of public opinion pressure on labor negotiations regarding temporary employee hiring. The last section comprises the conclusion.
The historical context of collective action and labor unions in the United States:
Labor Unions as organizations are understood by the logic of collective action. Mancur Olson has presented a cogent explanation of why people create associations. In his masterpiece, “The Logic of Collective Action”, the author devoted a whole chapter to the labor union phenomenon. For Olson, “the American labor movement began as a series of small unions with local interests, each independent of the other” (Olson, 1971, page. 66). The author states that, although unions started small, they advanced to national scale between 1897 and 1904 (Olson, 1971). In such period, unions grew from 447,000 to 2,072,000 members. Olson explains such success in terms of coercion. One of the coercive tools the author identified as a major factor was compulsory membership. Following him, compulsory membership allowed union to grow steadily during the first half of the twenty century in United States. Compulsory membership is understood by Olson as the ability “to enforce the rule that nonunion members may not work in a given workplace”.
Obviously, Olson went further than compulsory membership as a factor for union’s growth, asserting that “in addition to compulsory membership, picket lines, and violence, some unions have also had selective incentives of a positive kind: they have offered non-collective benefits to those who join the union, and denied these benefits to those who do not” (Olson, 1971, page 72).
Mancur Olson certainly has empirical evidence for his theory. Nonetheless, there are instances in US history that one might think were decisive in fostering union organizations. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, is a great example of other factors fostering workers’ interest groups formation. It supposedly led to the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. It is worth noting that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the city. Apparently, this fire is one of the US historical events that have persisted in the US collective memory, strengthening a wide support for labor union during the first half of its twenty century.
The twenty century was kind of a Golden Age for labor unions. During such century collective bargaining and labor unions proved to be highly effective in certain contexts (Lurie, 1961; Ashenfelter, 1971; Ehrenberg, 1973, 1975). Many of the studies and researches made through the 60’s and early 70’s showed the tremendous success of labor unions in negotiating higher wages and benefits. Researches that took samples from cities with population over 25,000 showed a predisposition of these municipalities to provide higher benefits in salaries and wages that range from 12% to 18%. Malvin Luries for instance studied the effect of the presence/absence of a union on the basic wage rate per hour. One of his major findings was that the presence of a union in the workplace may generate an increase of up to 10% in wages (Lurie, 1961). Likewise, Ehrenberg found that the variation might be higher. For him, the increase might reach 18% wage difference in presence of labor union.
The historical conditions that helped labor movements to rise in United States were certainly different to the actual conditions. Although it is hard to assure that mass media resources were not involved in labor union growth, the scope of the media was certainly limited when comparing to the current availability and stream of information. Nowadays, public opinion gets more involved under the current flow of public and shared information. Therefore, public opinion has come to play a major role in bargaining process when it affects public sector employees. The most recent and significant experience was lived in the state of Wisconsin. There, Governor Scott Walker curbed collective bargaining for public employees. Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan, Main and Indiana have strong anti-union movements that are promoting the so-called right-to-work type of bills (Scott Neuman, NPR News. June 06, 2012). The fact of the matter is that “the number of union members in the public sector has leveled off, and traditional adversarial relationships are giving way to partnerships and alternatives methods of dispute resolutions” (Klingner et al, 2010, pag 355).
Public opinion pressures for more effective agencies have led personnel managers to create and innovate on hiring modalities. Public personnel managers have opted for expanding the agencies’ pay roll by hiring a more effective and flexible temporary employees. Temporary services allow managers to cope by creating a “labor reserve” for times of increased output demand” at a cheaper cost (Klingner et al. 2010, pag 349). Agencies may save taxpayer dollars in hiring process and benefits that are denied to temp workers. However, the quality of job being performed by temps is certainly lower (Klingner et al. 2010, pag 349). That affects the quality of the service provided, which is also a demand made by public opinion. Finally, the overall agency’s performance gets affected by this way of hiring services because the principal happens to be the temp agency (Klingner et al. 2010, pag 349).
Temp workers in the private sector seem to be equally effective for both the employer and for personnel managers. The most recent case is the Guest Workers program being discussed on the verge of immigration debate. Ashley Parker from the New York Times wrote on March 29 of 2013: “The Chamber of Commerce and the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s main federation of labor unions, have been in discussions parallel to those of the Senate group, and have already reached a tentative agreement about the size and scope of a temporary guest worker program, which would grant up to 200,000 new visas annually for low-skilled workers”. The editorial board of the same newspaper affirmed on March 31st that “Previous immigration overhauls have died because of the seemingly unbridgeable divide between business groups, which want an abundant flow of cheap workers, and labor unions, which want to protect the jobs and wages of workers already here”. Regardless of the convenience or the policy, the truth of the matter is that labor unions in United States have the capability to halt national level policies for decades. Their bargaining power still has huge influence in national level politics in United States.
Labor Unions might have leverage nowadays, but limitations are imposed to them from public opinion. Besides the reason in labor registration decline mentioned above, public opinion has questioned the core values that bolstered labor union movements once. Not even a high rate of unemployment has made public opinion support current labor unions’ positions. Jason Riley from Wall Street Journal published on March 26 of 2012 the following information:
“With U.S. unemployment currently above 8% and millions of Americans out of work, a guest-worker program for immigrants might seem like a hard sell. Yet when pollsters at the Tarrance Group asked likely voters about a proposed guest-worker program for agriculture, 70% of respondents expressed support, and 64% said that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who backed it. Moreover, while support “is strong across the board,” the survey found, “it should be noted that support is also strong among . . . Republicans (74%), ‘hard’ Republicans (75%), very conservative voters (67%), strong Tea Party supporters (71%), and weekly church attendees (73%).”
This type of public information plus the way it spreads through society and mass-media affects traditional practices in public personnel administration. While dealing with labor unions, government officials and personnel managers must consider the role that public opinion may play, as well as the information stakeholders want to share and validate.
Public opinion plays a major role not only when government officials deal with bargain issues at the state level, but also when private sector interests groups negotiate policies at the national level. Public personnel managers should derive conclusion not exclusively from the public sector labor union negotiation, but also from the private sector bargaining process. A major conclusion is the realization that all stakeholders must be considered in any negotiation that is expected to succeed, regardless of the sector.
Particularly, majors and executive branch officials in general should spread good information throughout society to achieve better results in the negotiation table. Sharing information with transparency and accuracy determines public support to negotiation between unions and government officials. However, data and information may be manipulated by one side of the bargain. Biased information may reach public opinion and therefore negotiations might get affected. What is really important then is to have a prior agreement on how the negotiation table will handle information and data resources. A strong agreement on who, what, when and how data is going to be shared will bolster and strengthen both side of the negotiation table. And that may lead to a better understanding and to better agreements.
1. Klingner, Donald et al. (2010). Public Personnel Management. Context and Strategies. Pearson. New York.
2. Olson, Mancur (1971). The logic of the collective action. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts.
3. Lurie, Melvin. (1961). “The effect of unionization on wages in the transit industry”, Journal of Political Economy, #69.
4. Ehrenberg, Ronald. (1973). “Municipal government structures, unization, and wages of fire fighters”. Industrial and Labor relations Review,# 27.
5. Ehrenberg, Ronald and Goldstein, Gerald. (1975). “A model of public sector wage determination”. Journal of Urban Economies. #2.
6. Ashenfelter, Orley (1971). “The effects of unionization on wages in the public sector: the case of fire fighters”. Industrial and labor relations Review, #24.