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Are Public and Private Sector Workers of a Different Nature?

Sebastián Etchemendy y Germán Lodola, profesores del Departamento en Ciencia Política y Estudios Internacionales, compararon a los sindicatos del sector público con los del sector privado en cuanto a sus capacidades movilizadoras.

Por Sebastián Etchemendy y Germán Lodola

Public-sector unions are becoming the hegemonic labor actor in many contemporary democracies. Despite the recent comeback of some unions in the private sector in the US, when one looks at the 21st century in perspective, the trend in unequivocal: while private-sector unions are generally in retreat, public-sector labor is a consistent force in much of the democratic world. Structural trends that undermine non-state labor amid globalization, such as enhanced international economic competition, widespread flexibilization of employment conditions, and retrenchment in traditional manufacturing strongholds have had far less of an effect on public unions outside the industrial sector.

During the last fifteen years, public-sector unions and teachers (the largest state workers’ group in almost every country) have staged notorious strike waves in places as diverse as the US, South Africa, Israel, Nordic countries, China, and Argentina. The president of Peru elected in 2021 built his career in a teacher union. Teachers’ and public-sector unions became the organizational backbone of Tunisian revolution that sparked the Arab Spring in 2011.  Government unions have been the main force behind massive strikes in the UK and France in the first half of 2023, the largest in at least two decades. The current rise of public-sector unions is reflected in various aspects such as union density, contract coverage, and mobilization capacity. In brief, most of 21st century big labor battles are, essentially, public-sector union clashes.

The increasing primacy of public-sector unions has been noted in advanced and developing economies alike. However, the study of public-sector union politics is largely separated by regional (US vs. Europe vs Global South) and disciplinary (American Politics/Economics vs. Comparative Politics/Political Sociology) divides. In the US, a dominant “rent-seeking”, neo-utilitarian approach critically emphasizes the growth of public unions. The (mostly European-based) Comparative Politics/Political Sociology sub-fields largely sees rising state unions as part of larger labor movements that, unlike in the US, are national political actors. Scholars in Latin America and the Global South have pointed out how, in those cases where the union movement is relative strong at a national level (such as Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Tunisia) public unions increasingly dominate national labor confederations and social contestation.

Unlike labor-related concepts that have travelled across regions and academic fields (e.g. “class” “corporatism” “dualism”) the role of state labor is largely undertheorized in contemporary social sciences.

Are public and private unions of a different nature? Do workers who labor under command in the public and private spheres belong to different classes, or carry fundamentally different risks in a market society? In a Marxist and Polanyian vein, both public and private workers are deprived from the means of production/subsistence. They sell their labor to employers as a commodity in the marketplace, and are thus part of the subaltern classes. Indeed, in both cases workers need to turn an individual wage relation into a collective form of negotiation to increase power. As individuals who sell their labor, private and public-sector workers essentially demand better wages and working conditions. Classical sociological approaches to class formation and power from both Marxist and Weberian bents, neither fundamentally differentiate private and state workers, nor conceptualize public workers under capitalism as a different class. Moreover, as corporatist perspectives in both Europe and the Global South convey, “political exchanges” to compensate for labor structural disadvantages may be an option for both private and public workers.

We contend, however, that public and private-sector labor crucially diverge in two fundamental aspects that affect unions’ capacity and workers’ incentives to mobilize. The first refers to the role of state regulation in collecting bargaining. Democratic regimes essentially accept free (and generally, in practice, mandatory) collective bargaining with employers when private sector workers are organized. By contrast, public sector bargaining is much more regulated. Second, government unions and their workers are, ceteris paribus, substantially different in matters of job stability: a) they are much less vulnerable to price competition and outsourcing employer strategies and b) they enjoy statutory protections against layoffs, while private workers do not. These theoretical similarities and differences are summarized in Table 1.

Our central claims are that public workers, and their unions, are part of the subaltern classes in the traditional, “structural” sense. The key difference between them is the combination of factors that shape their mobilization capacity.First, against established private sector-based economic theories of strike mobilization, we argue that public-sector workers tend to protest less in the upper part of the economic cycle, when the economy grows, unemployment is low, and budget constraints are less stringent. Second, we contend that in a free union organizing environment, mobilization declines when legal collective bargaining (at the national and/or subnational levels) is mandatory and thus labor disputes become institutionalized. Third, in the line of Corporatist theories, public-sector militancy weakens when government leaders share a party identity with relatively unified labor unions, and a political exchange of moderation for wage and non-wage payoffs unfolds. Conversely, public-sector contention will be stronger in times of fiscal adjustment and high unemployment, when activists who generally cannot be fired will fight for scarce resources. Militancy will also increase when collective bargaining is hindered by state regulation (which, unlike in the private sector, is frequent under democracies), when government and labor leaders belong to different political parties, and labor is divided internally and/or among many unions.

In a  recent study, we tested these three set of hypotheses for the case of teachers in Argentina between 2006 and 2019— a robust democratic federation in which teacher mobilization, the legal status of bargaining rights, and the fragmentation of the union movement, vary dramatically across the 24 provinces. We found that the left-wing government sanction of mandatory collective bargaining rights for a federal minimum wage, and its political exchange with the dominant teachers’ confederation CTERA (Confederation of Education Workers of Argentina), substantially lowered nation-wide strikes until 2015. Moreover, the reverse economy cycle (i.e., fiscal adjustment), provincial “duty to bargain” laws, and a common political identity between the governor and unified teacher unions, largely explain variation in subnational teachers’ strike activity. We combined qualitative and quantitative evidence: In the footsteps of classical works on labor mobilization by Shorter and Tilly, and Franzosi, we intended to go further from regression analysis because we wanted to capture the social and political dynamics behind the surge of teacher strikes.

In sum, beyond state retrenchment in the public industrial sector, countries still need civil servants, firemen, thrash collectors, teachers, nurses—in many cases increasingly more so. Indeed, public-sector unions are becoming the hegemonic labor actor in terms of mobilization in many advanced and emerging economies. Our research aims to lay out the initial basis for a more general (and less regionally anchored) view on public trade unionism, which underscores its key differences with private labor under the common umbrella of the subaltern classes.