Today, hundreds of thousands of working people and their labor unions across the globe will pour into the streets, organizing demonstrations and marches, in honor of International Worker’s Day, also known as May Day. The holiday commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Massacre, just one of the many violent labor conflicts witnessed in America throughout the latter half of the 19th century.
The Occupy Movement hopes to use this day as a means to reignite a dwindling flame of support by calling for a “General Strike” nationwide. For me, the whole day raises questions about the role of unions in the public sector, especially in light of Scott Walker’s recall election.
Since the 1950s, public-sector union membership has nearly quadrupled from 10% to 37% (while private-sector union membership has declined from 34% to 7%). In fact, the majority of wage and salary workers belonging to unions are actually employed by the government. Most people, even non-union sympathizers, would agree that unions played a crucially important role in improving the meager wages, long hours, and extremely hazardous working conditions that existed in the private sector under the “Dickensonian” capitalism of the 19th century.
But today’s workers do not face this level of exploitation. And even if this were the case in the private sector, are federal, state, and local employees really at risk of exploitation without a union?
Furthermore, workers in the private sector traditionally organize to demand a larger portion of the profits generated by their and management’s combined efforts, but government has no “profits” in which labor could share. Yet the demands for pensions, wages, and other benefits continue to increase to unsustainable levels that are beginning to exacerbate the budgetary problems of several local and state governments, as well as the federal government.