The role of unions in public administration

Organizational politics has become an important topic of management portfolio, which until 1970s received almost no attention. With the recognition that organizations too have conflicts, resource allocations and power seats just as in any regional politics; organizational politics started getting growing attention. The workplace facilitates socialization among individuals leading to their adopting of each other’s perceptions and political approach. Unionization begins to take shape when ideas and aspirations of these workers begin to enter the main stream regional politics outside the organization.

Communication and interaction is established and developed between the politics within the organization and politics existing outside. People prominent in the employees’ welfare groups and other committees actively interact with external politics, in an effort to initiate union activities. In 1999 when in Britain, the labor government introduced several national-based legislation like the Employment Relations Act, union representation was strengthened. The statutory right to trade union recognition ensured that companies no longer ignored or de-recognize a trade union.

Trade unions experienced a reversal in declining fortunes in terms of union membership. While trade union membership in recent years has been stemmed, the prevalence of non-union employment relations is significant. Union recognition was a norm among the few public sector workplaces, where union couldn’t bargain, as their pay is determined by review bodies. Among the private sector, nearly two-thirds of all workplaces were without trade unions in 1998. As revealed by the data, non-unionism had become common, although it is difficult to sum up on the management of employees in the non-union workplaces.

Some feel non-union organizations are the models of best practices while others argue that these organizations provides lesser rights and benefits to workers, while not being willing to give or receive information and also not being receptive to suggestions or dissent. In most European countries, the civil servants or central government employed people have traditionally been given special terms and privileges, not available to the private sector employees. These were accorded in recognition and support of their duties to the public, carried out on behalf of the state.

In carrying out their duties, it was expected that there would be no clash of interests between the employees and the public, who were the employers. Thus rights to collective bargaining and rights to strike were withheld. However in the 1960s, with the increase in public administrative activities, many from the private sector entered public service. With the rapid increase in the number of public sector employees, the validity of the employment status was questioned. As a result, collective bargaining rights started to be accorded to public sector employees too.

Employment aspects of people in public sector organizations which are directed to serving the public, like governmental institutions and municipalities, are very different from those in the private or semi-private sector (Vigoda, 2003). Public organizations offer lesser prospects of employee growth, like lower wages, retarded promotions and lack of recognition and rewards, compared to the private sector employees. However public organizations offer a most steady work environment and an high level of job security.

While the exit option is more considered and sought by the private sector employees, public sector employees value job security and experience, even if they dislike politics or believe to be a victim of organizational politics. Disgruntled public sector employees adopt behaviors like disinterest, negligence and lethargy which are less likely to be noticed or acted upon. Neglect and irresponsibility among public sector employees is mainly due to the fact that there isn’t a link between job performance and benefits. Labor unions too offer considerable support and protection to such employees.

When public organization employees go about neglecting and ignoring their duties, such attitudes reflect on the organization’s public interface. Such behavior reduces the level of public service, effectiveness and ability of the public administration. When President John K. Kennedy granted federal civilian employees in 1962, limited rights to collective bargaining, the government hoped that by recognizing employee organizations, the cooperation between workers and their managers would improve, leading to better public service (Halpern, 2003).

The recognition of the workers union gave workers a new identity with increased power. The workers gradually abandoned the cooperative approach and took up confronting union approaches. In 1970, about 200,000 postal workers took to illegal striking and secured higher wages. With rise in employment at the state and local levels, grievances over pay and working conditions increased. The union membership appropriately increased from 307,000 in 1960 to 1. 6 million in 1962 and to 2 million in 1966. Within a few years time, the unionization rate was already comparable with that in the private sector.

With the unionization rate declining for the private sector, since in the mid 1970s, the union membership in the public sector was about four times that in the private sector by 2000. During the 1970s and 1980s, the private sector was subjected to major changes in most developed nations. The increased competition due to global economy, trade liberalization, contributed to these changes. The demand for skilled labor and the introduction of computers caused redistribution of labor demand in the market.

Extensive recessions and economic bleak situations, aging workforce, double earner family dominance and more diverse workforce in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, upset the industrial system. These in turn led to mergers and acquisitions, business partnerships and joint ventures. Organizations took to integrations with suppliers or customers, to cut costs and raise profits. Deunionization in the private sector became common, together with changes in the human resource practices (Belman, Gunderson, & Hyatt, 1997).

A broader job profile, multi-skilling, contingent employment and higher level of labor-management cooperation contributed to a fall in strikes. Among the private sector employees in the US in 1993, only about 11% were enrolled in trade unions compared to almost 40% in the pubic sector. Private sector union membership fell at the rate of about ? % from the 1970s to the early 1990s, while the public sector union enrollment rose steadily. This is in stark contrast to the situation in 1954 when about 40% of the private sector workers were in unions while the public sector had only about 5%.

The pattern of these figures is not exclusive to the US, as data for all advanced countries indicate union participation to be high among the public sector workers. However the gap between the unionization rates among public and private sectors is very high for the US. The conditions and pressures that led the changes in the private unionization are now affecting the public sector. Changes are occurring in the public sector organizations in an effort to ‘reinvent’ the government or have a ‘performance-based government’. Downsizing, sub-contracting, privatization are now, also evident in the public sector.

Mergers and joint ventures that were once typical of the private companies have become common in the public sector too. The public sector which once stood as a model for employment practices for the private sector, is now at the receiving end. Strategic options and choices which were crucial for private organizations are now equally important for the public sector organizations too. Prioritizing cost cutting to make public services more efficient has had its own effect in privatization and downsizing. The public sector seems to be at its early stages of transition, just like the private sector had been through during the 1970s and 1980s.

There is clearly pressure on the public sector to learn and incorporate the best practices observed in the private sector. Employees of the private sector who had experienced the result of competitive demands to deliver; want the same from public sector employees, who are paid from government revenue. In September 2004, the Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance, Eric Kriss, blamed the union structure and attitude for the government’s financial difficulties and called for a fresh review of the union’s role.

According to Kriss, rules seeking all employees to join and contribute to the public employee unions create a cycle of events and attitudes which results in greater union influence in the government, and that too at a time when private sector employees are losing ground. He explains this by saying that when workers are made to pay towards the union dues, the union leader would use these funds to support pro union political leaders (Powell, 2004). When such political leaders are elected, the union leaders who helped them, would now begin negotiating with them for new contracts.

Since the 1980s, the union has made the Congress enact policies or supported its policies to restrict immigration. It is to be noted here that union membership increased when immigration declined. In 2000, the executive council of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) announced a change in its stand with regard to immigration. The council declared that it intended to support immigration and lenient enforcement of immigration laws.

The AFL-CIO emphasized that it was promoting the rights of the immigrants to encourage them to join the unions. The number of immigrants as union members rose 24% from 1. 4 million in 1996 to 1. 8 million in 2003. The levels of native union members however fell by 6% during this period from 14. 8 million to 14. 0 million. Correspondingly, the levels of immigrant representation in the unions increased while that of natives fell (Grieco, 2004). The dispute resolution mechanisms employed in the public sector were formulated over two decades back, with the intention of preventing strikes.

It aimed to ensure that public sector employees don’t put public to inconvenience and harm, by just stopping their work. Also, as complete bargaining power could lead to enormous wage gains through negotiations, the bargaining rights among the public sector workers were ridden with conditions and check points, unlike those used in the private sector. The bargaining process for the public sector thus included obligatory mediation and fact determination. The 1990s representing the fourth phase in public sector collective bargaining, saw new levels of aggression and crack down.

The first phase coincided with the growth of unions in the 1960s, and the second phase was a period of revolts in the 1970s. The third phase in the 1980s emphasized greater accountability, performance and efficiency in public service workers. In the current fourth phase, they are under attack, with their collective bargaining rights itself being questioned.


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