Recently there has been much debate and political action over the nature of collective bargaining for the public sector and how that concept is being redefined. What is the debate about? What are the pros and cons that frame this issue?
As membership in private unions has declined over the past several decades, membership in public unions has grown. In 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were more unionized public sector employees (7.9 million) than unionized private sector employees (7.4 million). As the public sector grew in states and cities across the nation and these employees were seen as critical to the Democratic party's electoral success in local and national elections, more and more municipalities allowed public sector employees collective bargaining rights. For example, after the Taylor Law was passed in New York state in 1976, 360,000 state and local workers joined unions. By 1972, half of the states in the country had public sector collective bargaining laws in place at the state or local level.
Public sector employees can use their power to fight for higher wages and benefits, and economists believe that the power of public sector unions results in increased spending by the government. One bone of contention with state and local governments is public sector employees' pension funds. For example, in New York City, firefighters and police officers can retire after 20 years and receive half pay. Politicians often agreed to these pensions to win over union votes. However, pension funds have been underfunded to a large degree; for example, in Illinois, pension funds are liable for $100 billion, and only half of this amount is funded.
Without an economic boom, the state will face bankruptcy by 2018, and many other states are in the same situation. Facing such large responsibilities to fund public sector pensions, many states will be forced to reduce their spending on building roads and funding schools. Many experts also feel that unions have made public sectors less efficient. These are the cons of public sector collective bargaining rights. Several states, such as Minnesota and Iowa, have tried to curb the rights of public sector unions. Many people argue that public sector workers, including firefighters and police officers, are vital to the functioning of their community, and that cutting back these benefits would reduce the quality of the workforce willing to do vital public sector jobs. In other words, they argue that the pros of public sector collective bargaining rights are that these rights attract qualified people to public sector jobs.