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Response to Review of Government Against Itself: Public Sector Union Power and Its Consequences

I’d like to express my gratitude to Danny Millum, the Deputy Editor of Reviews in History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, for commissioning a review of my book Government Against Itself and to Joseph Hower of Southwestern University for writing an extensive treatment of it. I also appreciate the opportunity to respond to Professor Hower’s review.

Hower’s review of Government Against Itself offers some faint praise but it is mostly critical. A few of his criticisms are of things that are in the book, but most of them are of things that aren’t in the book. In that respect, he doesn’t perform the basic duty of a scholarly book reviewer: to lay out an author’s argument and evidence in neutral terms and then evaluate whether he succeeds or fails on his own terms.

Much of Hower’s negative evaluation of the book is premised on the notion I did not write the book he wanted to read. That book would have covered almost everything about public sector unions. It would have examined their entire history in the United States, included extensive international comparisons, and analyzed not just state and local unions but federal unions as well. Anything short of such comprehensiveness just doesn’t cut it for Hower. I confess to not having written such a book.

Yet, it would be just as easy to find fault with Government Against Itself for trying to cover too much ground. One could argue that any attempt to convey the current state of knowledge on public employee collective bargaining, worker compensation, pensions, union campaign contributions, state and local elections, lobbying, initiatives and referenda, public administration, governmental efficiency, and even the fundamentals of democracy is too much for one book. To find out whether I tried to do too much or not enough, one will have to read the book.

Hower begins his critique at the end of his second paragraph, asserting that the book is ‘problematic’ because of ‘its reliance on secondary sources, limited geographical reach, and narrow chronological framework’. The first item in this trio implies that the book should have had more ‘original’ research of some unspecified kind. But this criticism is unfounded. One of the book’s central objectives was to be synthetic: to gather what we know from a variety of disciplines—history, economics, political science, and sociology—about a neglected and understudied topic to inspire new research. That is an important scholarly contribution in its own right, as Hower admits. But it also means that the balance of the material should slightly be tipped in favor of secondary sources.

Yet, even holding my purpose in abeyance, one need only consider the weight of the book’s chapters to see that the balance between original research and secondary materials is relatively standard. Of its ten chapters the introduction and conclusion are largely theoretical discussions of the major issues relating to public sector unions, but they also contain research and reflection on the current politics of government unions. Of the remaining eight chapters, four are based on original research and four draw extensively on secondary sources. Woven throughout are existing scholarly research, policy reports, government documents, and other sources of hard data and empirical findings, on the one hand, and journalistic accounts, on the other. Curiously, the one chapter that Hower explicitly praises—on comparative compensation between public and private sector workers and union wage effects in the public sector—is a meta-analysis of all of the existing work by labor economists. Its’ contribution is to distill in a digestible form what we know from 35 years of research on these issues—not to provide new data.

Hower never unpacks his claim that the book has a limited geographical scope. But I assume that he means that I did not examine public sector unions in other countries, such as teachers unions in Finland and Japan. I readily concede that comparative analysis is likely to yield rich insights and more of it should be done. But it’s also difficult. The modes of union organization and collective bargaining in other nations are often very different from those in the United States. Parsing those differences, among others, and their policy effects is challenging. Mastering the existing research on government unions, labor markets, and public administration in those countries is also a tall order. (Few scholars of American politics or history also speak Finish and Japanese). What we should conclude then is that there is much more cross-country comparative work to do on public sector unions. I hope that my book will motivate other scholars to pick up the baton and run with it. And given that having a ‘research agenda’ is so important to academic advancement these days, I intend to make such inquiries part of mine.

Finally, Hower feels that the book covers too short a period. This objection may simply be an artifact of our coming from different disciplines. Hower is a historian, and not surprisingly, he wants more history. I am a political scientist, and the book’s temporal scope, covering the rise of public sector unions from the 1950s to today, might well be considered overly broad by some of my colleagues. I also had to balance the history of the rise of public sector unions with the political and policy consequences of that rise. As for the earlier history of public employee unions, some of it has already been written. I recommend readers to check out Joseph E. Slater’s excellent book, Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900-1962.(1)

Hower also laments that I neglect the social history of government unions in the post-war period. The trouble is that there isn’t that much scholarship to draw on. As the leading historian of public sector labor, Joseph McCartin has recently remarked, his discipline is ‘poorly equipped to explain the rise or persistence of organizations like the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) or the National Education Association (NEA) … [because] there is almost no literature on such unions in our field’.

Even more seriously, Hower contends, the absence of social history causes me to get wrong the story of how public sector unions emerged. In my account, it was complex politicking among governors, state legislators, party leaders, and union officials that led to the passage of state collective bargaining and union security provisions in the 1960s and 1970s. Hower implies a much simpler story: bottom-up worker activism forced politicians to enact the new statues. There are a couple of problems with this view. Not only is it clear that public union membership shot up after the laws were passed, not before, but it cannot account for the uneven pace at which states adopted these laws.

Furthermore, the existing theory and evidence offer strong support for the idea that agency shop legal provisions provide a powerful incentive for a significant percentage of workers to become union members. The notion that workers join unions simply because ‘they are dissatisfied with their jobs’, as Hower puts it, cannot explain why, in states that permit agency fees, more than 90 percent of teachers belong to unions today, whereas in states that don’t allow them, only 68 percent of teachers are unionized. I’m fairly confident that many public workers in the South today are dissatisfied with their jobs, but government union membership in North Carolina remains under ten per cent. The law matters.

Hower also laments that I do not offer a rich chronicle of earlier opposition to public sector unions, especially as they were emerging in the 1970s. Had I done so, he argues, that history would ‘complicate’ my ‘framing of recent developments as confrontations between budget busting unions and fiscally responsible elected officials’. But he leaves unsaid how or why it would complicate it. Although many of those involved in opposing the unions were interesting and occasionally influential, they were mostly marginal—and they lost. Contrary to Hower’s assertion that I say that opposition to public sector unions only emerged after the 2008 recession, I note how strong—and bipartisan—opposition to unionizing government workers was for much of the 20th century. Nor do I frame recent confrontations the way that Hower would like—as clashes between venal politicians and virtuous public sector unions. Rather I make the obvious point that Republicans, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie in New Jersey, and some Democrats have principled and political reasons to confront public employee unions.  

Finally, Hower wishes that I had done more with the PATCO strike and efforts during the Clinton and Bush administrations to roll back federal union rights. While those are all worthy subjects, my book is about public employee unions in state and local government. Again, there is more research to be done on federal government unions, which I hope other scholars will undertake.

That does it for Hower’s complaints about what’s not in the book. Hower’s criticisms of the arguments and evidence that are in the book are more limited—and often less well thought out. He argues that the differences between public and private sector unions are more limited than I suggest. I grant that unions in the public and private sectors are of the same genus, but I insist that public sector unions should be considered a different species of organization. The reasons are many: the laws that govern them, their historical trajectories, the social and demographic characteristics of the workers in each sector, and the distinct nature of government employment (civil service protections, monopoly provision of services, absence of market forces, etc.).

Hower stresses the common desire of public and private sector workers to join unions because they are dissatisfied with their jobs. But just because workers want to belong to unions doesn’t mean that unions in public and private sectors are the same thing. Furthermore, dissatisfaction among non-union workers has not created an overwhelming demand for union representation. For the first time in the last 30 years, in 2005, slightly more than 50 per cent of nonunion workers said they would vote for union representation if they could. This was a big increase from the 30 to 39 percent who said they would vote to unionize in the 1980s and 1990s. In short, the desire for union representation is a weak reed on which to hang the case that public and private sector unions are the same kind of organization.

Next, Hower claims that my brief coverage of the clash between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his state’s public sector unions is wrong. He claims that I frame ‘Scott Walker’s ACT 10 as a well-intentioned, almost apolitical attempt to balance the state’s budget’. This is a flat out misreading. At various points in the book I note, ‘Republicans’ efforts to exploit the issue [of public sector unionism] for political gain’ (p. 10), and point out that Walker’s reforms were ‘clearly not undertaken in [a] conciliatory mode’ (p. 181). In short, my discussion of Republicans and Governor Walker acknowledges that they have been acting both in pursuit of what they believed to be a reform agenda and also in pursuit of clearly defined political goals.

Hower also complains that I did not connect Walker’s confrontation with public sector unions with his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. But he needs only look at the book’s publication date to see why. The book went into press before the 2014 elections, when it was far from clear that Walker would even win reelection as governor. If Walker had lost that race, we probably wouldn’t be talking about his presidential ambitions now.

At the close of his review, Hower takes a stab at making a case for the broad social benefits of unionizing government workers. However, what he offers as a principled case could easily be interpreted as a merely partisan case. He says public sector unions are valuable to American society because they helped pass the Affordable Care Act and have ‘played crucial roles in local campaigns to raise the minimum wage’. He might well have added that they underwrite the Democratic Party.

At this point it should be clear that public sector unions are a hot-button issue, and that no matter how sound the theoretical arguments and thorough the documentation of a book that dares to say anything critical about them, there are readers who will go to great lengths to disparage it.


  1. Joseph E. Slater, Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900–1962 (Ithaca, NY, 2004).Back to (1)