Why does the public sector have more unions?

Public-sector unions aren’t like other unions, not just in their membership, but in how they get things done.

A typical union negotiation in the private sector involves bargainers using measures including walkouts and the threat of a strike to persuade a non-governmental entity to commit to the requests from the union membership. 

That’s not how negotiations work for public unions, where the process is more like lobbying. Right-leaning policy groups have pointed to core differences between public unions and their private counterparts: Unlike a private corporation, local, state and federal negotiators don’t have the same motivation to control costs in negotiations with public unions. 

Public unions “pick their own bosses,” meaning they play an outsized role in organizing, spending and voting, especially in low-level municipal and school board elections.

Unions are also top contributors in state legislative races. For example, the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and the California Faculty Association together spent more than $2 million on a variety of 2020 races. The union that represents prison guards in California dropped $4 million, the bulk of which went to just two races.

Public unions can have a major impact on policy in a way that private unions can’t. Take the case study of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which for decades successfully helped the push for more prisons – and more prison jobs. The number of prisons grew from 12 in 1980 to nearly three dozen by 2000. Along with that lobbying came the labor-backed push for a “three-strikes” law, which passed in 1994. 

-Nigel Duara