Chicago teachers strike has put Democrats in a difficult position.
Teacher unions are the most powerful constituency in the Democratic
Party, but their interests are ever more clearly at odds with taxpayers
and inner-city families. Chicago is reviving scenes from the last crisis
of liberalism in the 1970s, when municipal unions drove many American
cities to disorder and bankruptcy. Where did their power come from?
Best of the Web Today columnist James Taranto on union problems
nationwide. Photo: Associated Press
Before the 1950s, government-employee unions were almost inconceivable.
When the Boston police unionized and went on strike in 1919, the ensuing
chaosrioting and lootingcrippled the public-union idea. Massachusetts
Gov. Calvin Coolidge became a national hero by breaking the strike,
issuing the dictum: "There is no right to strike against the public
safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." President Woodrow Wilson
called the strike "an intolerable crime against
President Franklin D. Roosevelt also rejected government unionism. He
told the head of the Federation of Federal Employees in 1937 that
collective bargaining "cannot be transplanted into the public
service. The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible
for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the
employer" because "the employer is the whole people, who speak
by means of laws."
FDR pointed out the obvious, that the government is sovereign. If an
organization can compel the government to do something, then that
organization will be the real sovereign. Thus the National Labor
Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935 gave private-sector unions the power to
compel employers to bargain, but the act excluded government workers. It
declared that federal and state and local governments were not
"employers" under its terms.
Postwar prosperity and the great increase of public employment revived
the public union idea. By 1970, nearly 20% of American workers worked for
the government. (In 1900: 4%.) The American Federation of State, County,
and Municipal Employees led the effort to persuade a state to allow
public-employee unionization, and Afscme prevailed in Wisconsin in 1958.
New York City and other cities also permitted their workers to
President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order 50 years ago that
broke the dam. The order did not permit federal employees to bargain over
wages (these are still set by Congress), or to force workers to join a
union or to strike (no state or city allowed that), but Kennedy's
directive did lead to unionization of the federal workforce. And it gave
great impetus to more liberal state and local laws. Government-union
membership rose tenfold in the 1960s.
Things soon got ugly. The Wagner Act had fomented labor militancy,
notably sit-down strikes in 1937 that disrupted manufacturing and
retarded the economy. But in the late 1960s and 1970s, federal and state
union-promoting laws produced unprecedented strikes by teachers, garbage
collectors, postal workers and others, even though every state prohibited
strikes by public employees.
Associated Press/Sitthixay Ditthavong
Striking Chicago public-school teachers on Monday.
Afscme began to arouse resentment from other union federationsespecially
the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. Afscme's
abrasive president, Jerry Wurf, became an easy target for his opponents.
He was said to have advised Baltimore firefighters to "let Baltimore
burn" if union demands were not met; Wurf was subsequently regarded
as generally having a let-it-burn attitude.
In 1976 the Supreme Court derailed a movement to enact the National
Public Employment Relations Law ("a Wagner Act for public
employees," as supporters described it) led by Rep. William Clay of
Missouri. The court held that Congress could not apply federal labor laws
to state employees. The justices stated the obvious, that "the
States as states stand on a quite different footing from an individual or
By the end of the 1970s, the budgetary burdens imposed by public unions
had helped revive conservative movements, leading to the elections of
Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Undeterred, William
Clay told the Professional Air Traffic Controllers at Patco's 1980
convention to "revise your political thinking. It should start with
the premise that you have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies,
just permanent interests. It must be selfish and pragmatic." He told
them to "learn the rules of the game," which were "that
you don't put the interest of any other group ahead of your own. What's
good for the federal employees must be interpreted as being good for the
nation." The take-no-prisoners message helps explain why President
Reagan fired and replaced the striking controllers, and why the public
overwhelmingly supported him.
Historians tend to depict the Patco strike as a replay of the 1919 Boston
police strike, with Reagan as the new Coolidge. But breaking the Patco
strike had zero impact on public unionism. It may have cooled the
willingness to strike, but unions continued to flourish. Public
employment and government unionism have grown more than the population
since 1980. The Patco replacements soon joined the National Air Traffic
Controllers Association and carried on Patco's work.
Nor did the breaking of the strike "send a signal" to private
employers to take a hard line against their unions, as some historians of
the time have suggested. The factors responsible for private-union
decline antedated the Patco strike and continued after it. Reagan
ultimately may have even helped the public-employee union movement: By
stoking the nation's economic revival in the 1980s, he made the costs of
public unions begin to seem less onerous, and polls suggested that
American worries about the matter declined.
Public unions do well in flush times like the 1950s and 1960s, but they
suffer when taxpayers feel their true cost, as in the 1970sand
Mr. Moreno, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, is the author
of "The American State from the Civil War to the New Deal,"
forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
A version of this article appeared September 12, 2012, on page A15 in
the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How
Public Unions Became So Powerful.