At 50, A 'Wagner Act' for Public Employees

January 17, 2002 marks the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s executive order granting federal government employees the right to organize. Sort of.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 or Wagner Act granted many categories of workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, but excluded many others. Agricultural workers and domestic servants, for instance, were left unprotected. Government workers were another.

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It was almost 30 years before President Kennedy’s order made it possible for organizations of federal employees to seek recognition and negotiate labor contracts with their employer. It was called “a Wagner Act for public employees,” but the terms were decidedly different. Federal workers are not permitted to bargain over wages and benefits, and are forbidden to strike – arguably the two most critical hallmarks of a labor organization.

Perhaps their most important power is to represent workers in disciplinary hearings. This is no small benefit. Workers who lack a union contract in the United States are “at will” employees who can be peremptorily dismissed without any investigation or hearing. Still, even this right comes with a catch.

The entire federal government sector is by law ‘right-to-work,’ meaning that any government employee can opt out of membership and dues but still demand the union’s representation in a disciplinary procedure. It should come as no surprise that the unions representing federal employees have always struggled to recruit and retain members.

There are important differences between public and private sector workers. Critics point out that citizens cannot ‘opt out’ of most public services they way they can decline a product whose labor costs render it too expensive. But that doesn’t leave them entirely without a voice. After all, while only stockholders get to vote on the CEO of General Motors, every citizen gets a vote for the president of the United States.

That may be the more important qualifier on the rights of federal and other public employees. When workers at a private firm organize, they claim their rights and powers at the expense of a private entity. When public employees do so, they claim their rights and powers at the expense of our elected representatives.

That’s not to say it’s an unreasonable claim: we have an entire bill of rights designed to limit the powers of our democratically elected representatives, lest unpopular minorities be deprived of their legitimate rights. And judging from the tenor of last year’s political debate, government workers certainly seem to be the unpopular minority du jour. It’s a shame that while taxation levels, social security, medicare and defense form the realities of our budget, the rights and livelihoods of our federal employees have become a political football.

Clayton Sinyai

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ed gleason
5 years 9 months ago
The anti-government tea party protesters had a point about city/county workers/unions who had the pols give them enormous pensions and work rules in exchange for election help. Check Bell Ca.. The Pols had other peoples tax money to buy favoritism and votes and they  would have  moved on when the bill was due. . Federal workers do not have these outrageous benefits but the anti-government cry hit with a broad brush
5 years 9 months ago
A Union/Employer system requires that the system is advaserial.  When sitting at the bargaining table someone needs to advocate for the worker (that would be the union) and someone needs to advocate for the share holder and consumer (that would be the employers).  This works reasonably well in the private sector.

In the public sector the Union advocates for the public worker but who advocates for the share holder (the public)?  Too often the Governor and elected officials owe a piece of their very office to the public employee unions because of their political money and support.  The bargaining table is rigged in favor of the union employee at the expense of the many shareholder/consumers.

I as a shareholder have no problem with public employee unions but my Governor and elected officials better damn-well represent me at that bargaining table with these unions; otherwise get rid of all public employee unions!
Jim McCrea
5 years 9 months ago
Darned commies!  Off with their pensions.
J Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago
Does Mr. Sinyai think that federal employees are getting treated badly or are underpaid?  In 2009 the average total compensation was $120,000 a year compared to $60,000 a year in the private sector.  Less than 10 years before that the comparison was $76,000 to $46,000.  If you want to know why things have got out of control, look at the rapid rise of public employees in the last 20 years.


http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/federal-pay-continues-rapid-ascent/


I would start looking into ways to limit the compensation of public employees in fairness to the poor.  OWS has their focus on the wrong place.
5 years 9 months ago
David,

The problem for many states like Illinois is that public employees were given wonderful pensions that cannot be taken away or changed without a constitutional amendment or convention.  In Illinois the constitutional convention initiative was defeated by you-know-who!  The teachers in my area had students going door-to-door telling us to vote no against the constitutional convention because it would destroy their school.  Little did these kids know that they were fighting for retired teachers' pensions.  Little did these kids know that they would one day have to foot the bill.
5 years 9 months ago
John,

I am all for people making as much money as they deserve.  The question is how you determine that so called "just wage".

I would argue that when public employee unions have the governor (CEA) and many elected officials in their pocket then the bargaining table is fixed and will not produce a just wage.  You do need to take into consideration the shareholder(voters) and the consumers when considering a "just wage".  Paying people more than their work is worth is an injustice to the people who have to write the paycheck and to the consumers who pay more for the service and products!
JOHN SULLIVAN
5 years 9 months ago
My goodness how outrages to think that workers would, in addition to their wages,  get the benefits of health insurance and pension! The average compensation $120,000. I think not.
Stanley Kopacz
5 years 9 months ago
So,more reason to cut back the War Department.  Less future obligations.  Veteran's benefits?  The previous costs of Bush empire wars.  We can't do this nonsense anymore.  We can't afford it.  We can't afford paranoia and war profiteering and going to war at the drop of a hat.  
J Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago
''The average compensation $120,000. I think not.''


It is what government statistics are reporting.   


For those who disbelieve the extent of what public employees make/cost, it should be an eye opener.  The average public employee in 2009 made $40 per hour while the average private employee made $27.50 per hour.  Of the $40 per hour about a 1/3 was in benefits which are not taxable.


The public employees are the ones hurting the poor as they suck money out of state, county and city budgets for their pay and benefits so that little is left for other things.  And it is getting bigger each year.  But for liberals it is all hunky dory because they contribute to the Democrats big time.  The four biggest contributors to Democrats are public unions, Wall Street, lawyers and universities.  All of which get kick backs from Democrat politicians with favorable distribution of money.
JOHN SULLIVAN
5 years 9 months ago
O K let's take a closer look at your numbers JR. If as you say that a public employee earns $40 per hour and 1/3 is benefits, then the public employee earns approximately $27.33 per hour, less than the private sector employee who, as you report, is earning $27.50 per hr. Total compensation at $40 per hour equates to $1600 per wk. x 52 weeks = $83,000 annually, not quite $120,000 as you report.

It was reported today that Mitt Romney, "wholeheartedly" supportted by former Vatican ambassors, paid an effective tax rate of 15%, mainly because his income was largely from dividends and investments. What do you think the rate would be for a public employee, earning $28 per hr? Certainly more than 15%!
J Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago
Mr. Sullivan,


The $120,000 is for federal employees.  The $40 per hour is for all public employees including state, county and city employeees.  Both are averages and do not reflect final yearly pay from which most pensions are calculated. 


Mr. Sinyai mixed federal employees and public employees in his OP.  I did the same but specified the $120 k as federal. 
JOHN SULLIVAN
5 years 9 months ago
Joe, I have no problem with your analysis. However, I draw the line when any worker, in this case public employees, become the scapegoat. You are absolutely correct that structural changes need to be made in the collective bargaining system as it exists. Pension costs need to be reigned in, and that doesn't mean workers rights to be represented by unions should be deneid. It's exasperating to read the hyperbole on this blog from the likes of JR. The  Mitt Romneys of this world don't give a hoot for middle class people much less the poor.

The late, great Pat Moynihan had it right when he decribed the dehumanizing effect of dependency  on those it purportedly intends to help. He was intellectually honest and had good intentions. Romney and his ilk have no such intentions.
J Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago
Mr. Sullivan,


The person making $27 per hour or about $56,000 a year will probably pay less than $6000 a year in federal income taxes or about 11% if he or she is married filing jointly.  The rate is 15% till 68 k and the first 10K are free.  Now I am not a tax expert so anyone feel free to correct this. 
J Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago
''exasperating to read the hyperbole on this blog from the likes of JR''


What hyperbole?  Are you implying I am not accurately telling what is reported?  There is a word for this that the nuns/priests/brothers who taught me used to describe such behavior. Refute what I say, not throw negatives.  We can then have a civil dialogue.
JOHN SULLIVAN
5 years 9 months ago
JR, You were probably absent when they spoke of the "sermon on the Mount". Hyperbole is defined as a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect-American heritage college dictionary. I stand by my use of the word. I never explicitly or implicitly said you were disingenuos. God loves all of us, even Republicans.
Vince Killoran
5 years 9 months ago
Same old tired misinformation by the usual crowd. The cost of pensions are not the cause of dysfunctional state budgets.

BTW, who determines how much legislators get paid? 
C Walter Mattingly
5 years 9 months ago
The above article is a touch anachronistic in the sense that the bloated payrolls and pension benefits of many, though not all, city, state, and federal employees are now almost universally recognized and being countered nationwide. Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Gov. Cuomo of New York are not what most would call Tea Party Republicans, but they are going after the bloated payrolls of public employees tooth and nail, and the taxpayers are the better for it. It is a large portion of city, state, and national budgetary problems. Gov. Christie and Walker get the occupiers and the union attention, but democrats such as Emanuel and Cuomo are doing much the same thing. Thank goodness for the country. It's good that most of the respondents here of different ideological bent are sensitive to the relationship of public collective bargaining and the pol creating future budgetary problems for governments at the various levels.
JOHN SULLIVAN
5 years 9 months ago
Another country heard from. Vince if you do't know that the cost of municipal pensions has become a tremendous burden on local and state governments, you haven't been paying attention. Maybe we should think about doing away with government altogether, then there would be no need to worry about "dysfunctional" government.
Stanley Kopacz
5 years 9 months ago
$120,000 per annum might be believable if you look at NYC area locality pay.  GS-15 step ten (as high as you can get without being an SES specially funded by Congress) gets 155,000.  But when you consider all those southern outposts and depots, the low grade structure and regular pay grade, I find it hard to believe.  Of course, those who were in the green zone maintaining equipment, that might drive the average up somewhat.  A great many if the employees of the War Department are engineers and scientists who are usually better paid.  
J Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago
The $120,000 number is total compensation and not what would appear on a step and lane chart that lists take home compensation.  If one follows the link above, they will see that the average salary in 2009 was $79,000 or that over a third of total compensation amounted to $41,000 and was in benefits.  Benefits have real costs but are not taxable.


The most amazing thing about this is not just the total compensation of $120,000 which is quite extraordinary but the rapid rise of it.  In 2000 it was $51.5 K salary and $25 K in benefits or total compensation of $76 K.  So in 9 years it rose $44 K or 58%.  Just one of the reasons why government spending has gotten out of control in recent years. 


And for those who are not familiar with base line budgeting, one should be aware of the ''hyperbole'' used by the press, politicians and recipients of government largess when they say that something is being cut.  There is an automatic increase of 5-7% in nearly every budget item built in to the government budgets each year.  So if someone comes in and wants to restrict the increase to 3-5% they are accused of cutting the budget when in fact are just slowing the increase.  This is done with whatever favorite program there is.  It make great rhetoric as politicians, the press, and recipients start complaining.


It is a game that has been played for years and we are near the edge of the precipice but that does not stop the demonization with cries of doom when someone exposes the hypocrisy.  Those who propose a sensible solution are shown pushing granny off a cliff in TV commercials.  The rest of us are played like suckers in a condo time share scam.
Vince Killoran
5 years 9 months ago
The "game" is the low grade tactic of throwing out the $120k figure time & again without comparing to the private sector.

The fact is that, when you consider both salary & benefits, public & private sector workers with similar skills, education levels, and jobs, they make about the same (in some states public sector workers make a bit less).

We've discussed this many, many times on this site.  It seems like all the links to evidence proving this point will not move ideologues who oppose the right of workers to unionize.
Joshua DeCuir
5 years 9 months ago
"We've discussed this many, many times on this site.  It seems like all the links to evidence proving this point will not move ideologues who oppose the right of workers to unionize."

I at least see Cosgrove giving numbers and analyses.  All I see from his opponents is name-calling.  I think "ideologue" is in the eye of the beholder.

It's quite remarkable how fundamentalist progressive Catholics get in their arguments over unions, particularly those of public employees.  I'm often told that conservative Catholics ignore the need to apply Catholic teaching in particular contexts, and to weigh evidence.  Yet all that seemingly goes out the window when the word "union" is raised.  Unions are not ends in themselves, but are means to an end - the promotion of the common good.  When the common good is threatened (and there is sizeable evidence that the growth in wage/benefit packages among government workers is outstripping their private counterparts), the means must be adjusted. 
Joshua DeCuir
5 years 9 months ago
It should also be added that apart from the number-crunching, public employees have two sizeable advantages that private workers don't: the protections of the civil service system, and (perhaps most importantly) the ability to "negotiate" with people that they can pour millions of dollars into electing or un-electing.  Let's not forget, Citizens United also lifted any limits of unions' campaign spending limits, too.  I don't hear too much about the threat to democracy posed by that from my progressive friends.
Sergio Leiseca
5 years 9 months ago
good morning,

JFK should have remembered FDR's counsel:  No public sector unions.  So, my suggestion: let's forget this achievement.  FDR would agree with me.

take care
J Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago
From a couple articles in the Washington Post, a notoriously conservative ideological, publication


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/03/AR2009060302789.html 


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/20/AR2009062000363.html


These articles describe the benefits from a federal government job.  If you read the articles you will see that federal employees not only have much better benefits than nearly everybody in the private sector but amazing job security as well.  And they are paid well on top of that.  Given that perspecitve, can anyone see the point of Mr. Sinyai's OP above?  Why didn't he provide this information?  Surely he is aware of it.  Surely he knows that  such total compensation packages hurt the poor.


And relevant to the data provided.  The total average federal salary rose to $123,000 the following year.  Raises in salaries for federal employees averaged over 5% per year during the 2000's while private sector raises were about 3%.  Thus, the increasing disparity as time goes on.  Better pay, better benefits and rock solid security.
Stanley Kopacz
5 years 9 months ago
Cut back the War Department and it will make a big dent in most conservative fiscal complaints above while producing a large unemployed engineering sector.  Of course, there's that global empire to maintain.  let the 1% pay for it all.  Then you'll see some cutbacks fast. 
Joshua DeCuir
5 years 9 months ago
"Cut back the War Department and it will make a big dent in most conservative fiscal complaints above while producing a large unemployed engineering sector."

Most of the "War Department"'s spending is in obligations to veteran pensions and Defense Department employee benefits.  Last time I checked, they counted as government employees, which is exactly what many here are arguing AGAINST cutting. 
Joshua DeCuir
5 years 9 months ago
The alternative planet you live on must be quite remarkable.
Vince Killoran
5 years 9 months ago
Actaully Josh we've been over this many times-I providedd several links to scholarly studies etc. and Cosgrove & Co. cam back with their same anecdotes. Please check the archives.

Repititous and boring.
J Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago
''I providedd several links to scholarly studies etc. and Cosgrove & Co. cam back with their same anecdotes''


That is nonsense. 
Joshua DeCuir
5 years 9 months ago
Vince -

I've just done a google search.  The below editorial is from the Washington Post - a notorous bed of right-wing "anecdotes" I guess you'd say.  Would you engage the numbers cited therein and tell me how they're wrong?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/29/AR2010052903132.html
Vince Killoran
5 years 9 months ago
I was taliing about scholarly studies, not newspaper editorials.

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