Choke points: Labor historian discusses how public-sector unions took hold
Private-sector union strategies and growth have helped public-sector unions and employees.
Decent pay and solid benefits are among some of the top considerations in deciding to take—and keep—a job. For feds, a desire to serve others can be an even stronger draw, but the fact that government work offers security and solid job benefits has helped managers to recruit people to embark on careers in public service.
But how did such reasonable minimums in pay and benefits come into being in the first place, at least for many in the American workforce?
Beginning in the late 1800s, new laws and policies that advanced these improvements came in fits and starts as industrialization often brought tough working conditions but also unionization—along with bargaining power and better pay for workers. The early decades of the labor movement created many powerful unions—some long forgotten, others still household names: The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the American Federation of Labor, the United Mine Workers, and many more. Some of the first public-sector unions in the U.S. include the National Association of Letter Carriers, the American Federation of Teachers and, for feds, the National Federation of Federal Employees.
The takeoff of unions and improvements for workers in the wider economy culminated in the 1930s with federal laws mandating a 40-hour workweek, an end to legal child labor, guaranteed minimum wages and, for many, job benefits—most notably the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) and the 1938 Federal Labor Standards Act. Union protections for federal employees came later, in 1962 with Executive Order 10988. Private- and public-sector unions have become part of the fabric of America’s economy, but they have gone through periods of greater and lesser power—to this very day.
Harvard historian and economist, author of Labor Power & Strategy and now emeritus professor John Womack Jr., in an interview with Government Executive, sketches how private-sector unions grew in strength—leveraging what he terms “choke points” in work processes—and how private-sector union strategies and growth also helped public-sector unions and employees.
Q&A with John Womack Jr.
GovExec: In recent years, public-sector unions experienced wild ups and downs. They suffered major pushback from President Trump and, for example, the Supreme Court’s Janus decision. More recently, they found more favor under President Biden. But over history, how did unions take off in the first place, and how did private-sector unions affect public-sector unions?
Womack: That’s a broad question. When unions formed with respect to private businesses, they took hold earliest and most effectively in parts of the economy and specific jobs where the organizers could operate on one or more “choke points.” That is, where workers and organizers could force an employer to give in to some or all of their demands—for recognition, for better conditions, pay or other issues. By way of leveraging choke points with strikes or other actions at places where they could very effectively apply pressure.
GovExec: Can you give us an early historical example of a union using a choke point?
Womack: Yes. For example—one of the earliest and strongest—came in the 1880s in the formation of the Teamsters Union. “Teamsters”, at that time, literally meant horse-drawn vehicle drivers and deliverymen. Teamsters delivered everything and had a lock on transporting goods in many towns and cities, which was powerful for the union. Over time they created regional formations. Much later—decades into the 20th century—the Teamsters’ choke points shifted from ones involving drivers to more about warehouse workers. Anyway, a company couldn’t get any goods moved anywhere without dealing more fairly with workers at these choke points.
GovExec: Can you give us an example of a federal employee union leveraging choke points?
Womack: The most obvious one is the federal employee air traffic controllers. In the early 1980s that union—the now-defunct Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, PATCO—occupied a choke point, because a big part of the economy is the nation’s air transport. That union had backed Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign, assuming he would return the favor and improve their pay and conditions if he won. And yet, once president, frankly he betrayed them. PATCO went on strike. Their members were replaced. A key moment for federal unions, one where the treatment of public-sector unions actually affected the history of private-sector unions, weakening them. And it’s another example of how any kind of transportation has choke points. But trying to leverage that didn’t work here.
GovExec: Air traffic control leans heavily on highly skilled people. But with the rise of automation and even AI, won’t there be fewer choke points for unions to leverage—weakening labor orgs in both the private and public sectors?
Womack: In the private sector already, with business leaders like Jeff Bezos of Amazon or Howard Shultz of Starbucks, you have CEOs who know where choke points are. And, generally, they are trying to eliminate potential choke points. Private-sector or public-sector, even when they eliminate some jobs, management still has to find ways to provide basic functions—sometimes creating new choke points. Historically, it is often new choke points—and successful attempts by workers to identify and use them—that launch and grow unions.
GovExec: Should feds join a union, even though they can’t legally strike and can only collectively bargain on certain issues? In other words, how can feds best help themselves with limited leverage? Second, how can feds overcome a public perception among many of having cushy jobs with excessive pay and benefits even when in fact compensation for many feds is modest?
Womack: That’s a good presentation of a couple of federal employees’ leading problems. About your question on joining unions, unions can help. For the second question, there is a real image problem. I think unions need to do better educating the public on the real situation. If you live in or near Washington, New York, San Francisco or many other high-cost areas, even with locality pay often you are not earning as much as you need. Unions should better educate the public on this reality. They might need to consider more actions, demonstrations for example, and leverage choke points. They need to communicate “if you don’t treat us right, look what it can lead to.” These two things are needed: Better messaging campaigns to educate the public that public employees actually are not overcompensated and, at some jobs and agencies, carefully chosen actions that highlight choke points.
GovExec: So, in those early decades of industrialization, organized labor like the Teamsters, the AFL, the other unions grew—often in a context of violence and strife. Did all this affect public-sector unions—including laws legitimizing, and limiting, them ,as in the La Follette Act of 1912?
Womack: Well, the most obvious way was that the private-sector labor movement helped inspire and was part of a culture that saw the growth of public-sector unions, too. But generally public-sector unions were not and are not permitted to strike. State laws and federal laws on this apply, very much still in force. We see this again just over this last year when the Biden administration moved to prevent a potential strike among freight railroad workers. This is with private companies but essential services. On the other hand, despite laws and policies to stop public-sector unions from striking, they do it anyway sometimes.
GovExec: Can you offer more examples of public-sector strikes—illegal strikes—and outcomes?
Womack: Sure. Public school teachers. There are several ways they occupy choke points. They teach children, an obvious essential function. But teachers also provide—as my daughter, a teacher, reminded me recently—childcare. In the last few years alone, we’ve seen teachers strike in Los Angeles, Chicago, West Virginia and elsewhere. It’s been about those choke points. Here’s another recent public-sector example: medical and hospital workers. In Massachusetts, despite it being illegal, hospital workers and their unions went on strike. Look, sometimes in other states—as in Massachusetts—public workers strike and then simply pay the fine. And along the way, they have won what they need because they were able to work choke points.
GovExec: Does your concept of choke points encompass only certain high-value jobs?
Womack: No. This is important: Choke points do not have to be at the higher end or center on skilled jobs. It can be any kind of job along a process where you have a technical division of labor, one divided into different tasks and departments. If you can organize at certain key points in that process, then if you strike or raise that possibility, people in charge have to go along. To illustrate the point, there have been janitors and cleaning staff strikes. In a hospital especially, you have to keep the place clean, right?