Public Unions & Democracy

Economics + Education + Government + Litigation + Practice + Public
May 15, 2013
Read this in 3 minutes

The Etiology of a Malfunction in Democratic Processes is a case study on public unions, public finance and education policy. Set in Rhode Island during the 2008 fiscal crisis, which did more than bankrupt municipalities, this detailed look at the legal structure of public contracting provides balanced counsel on a way forward for managers and negotiators on all sides of a complex equation – heed the long view and let democracy govern. It doesn’t pay to manipulate the system into oblivion, because it doesn’t do you much good being a strong man on a sinking ship. The article abstract follows below.


Public unions have enjoyed a strong presence for half a century. Despite political disagreement about the value of public unionism, the organizations have persisted and rather steadily maintained, even as private unions dropped off dramatically. But now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and somewhat suddenly, the very existence of public unions is threatened by attempts at wholesale elimination. What changes prompted such finality?

The more acute change is macroeconomic in nature. Public fiscs are struggling to remain balanced during a decline in economic conditions. Given that union salaries and benefits consume a large portion of government budgets – particularly at the municipal level – they have been a natural target of reform.

But there is a more chronic change as well. The strategies public unions use to maintain parameters of success, such as enrollment and compensation, have eroded over time the confidence some have in their positions and very nature. The erosion is at minimum an impediment to the goodwill necessary to productive negotiation and at most an impediment to existence.

The literature thus far focuses on mere analyses of the effects of bargaining laws. It shows what one would expect, namely that laws designed to benefit unions do in fact benefit unions. But nonspecific analyses of raw statutes tell very little of the story behind the erosion of confidence expressed by political groups.

More important are the outcomes sought through judicial interpretation of these laws and the processes by which outcomes are sought. This paper explains such an outcome and process sought by public unions, namely to have judges rule that salaries and benefits can only go up where the right to strike is proscribed. This position has contributed to confidence erosion because it sounds at the margins of democratic means and substance. There are two reasons for this.

First, it utilizes the judiciary and quasi-judicial fora to read additional broadly applicable restrictions into procedural legislation that is on its face complete. Second, it ties the hands of elected officials on a matter according to which they are evaluated primarily. The position is not without justification, but there are more democratic means available to public unions to effect the desired result.

For example, in the case of teachers, unions exert great influence over school committee elections via financial prowess and a deep membership electorate. They are thus able to express their will on contract negotiations through the electoral process. They need not resort to the judiciary for contractual outcomes.

A case study of this litigation-election dynamic is presented. It is set in Rhode Island. There, a teachers’ union took the litigation position and lost, but then saw the replacement of all but one member of the school committee with whom it disagreed about a reduction in salaries and benefits at the time of its contract renewal in 2008 in the depths of recession.

Malfunctions in democratic processes are at times subtle. But subtlety does not limit the scope of consequence. This paper traces the potential origin of one such malfunction and points to a solution.

Did you find value in this piece? Tweet or Like it so others can, too.