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Public Servants and the Public Good

In an article adapted from his address at the 2016 annual meeting, a historian discusses the legacy of public-sector unions as a force for serving the common good.
By William P. Jones

Three months after the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act, which Congress had passed in 1935 to ensure that workers had the right to form unions, bargain collectively, and strike in private industry, President Franklin D. Roosevelt explained why the new law could not apply to workers employed by the government. In a letter to leaders of public employee unions in 1937, he acknowledged that the concerns of public employees for decent wages, working conditions, and fair treatment on the job were “basically no different from [those] of employees in private industry.” The president insisted, however, “that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” “Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical,” he stated, “but meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.”

Roosevelt’s statement continues to frame an ongoing debate over the rights and duties of local, state, and federal government workers in the United States. Opponents of public-sector unions cite his letter as evidence that even a stalwart supporter of unions in the private industry believed they had no place in the public sector. Union supporters counter, however, that Roosevelt recognized public employees’ right to organize, albeit in a different manner from industrial workers, and that his administration negotiated with unions in the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Government Printing Office, and other federal agencies in the 1930s. Jacob Baker, who led the left-wing United Federal Workers of America, praised the president for his “realistic recognition” that public employees, like other workers, needed unions.

This debate about public servants persists in matters of public policy, law, and politics, and it is particularly relevant for members of the AAUP today. Many of us are employed by private institutions, but we are all public servants in the sense that Roosevelt used the term. Higher education is not only a commodity but also a public good, and thus the entire society—and not just students—has an interest in its continued quality and availability.  This was reflected in the AAUP’s Statement of Principles, adopted in 1940, which stated that “institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole.”  That understanding also undergirded Roosevelt’s insistence that public employees, unlike industrial workers, had no right to strike. “Upon employees in the Federal service,” the president wrote in his letter, “rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities.” Calling that obligation “paramount,” he declared, “a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied.”

AAUP members continue to confront the tension that Roosevelt identified between our personal interests as workers and our duty to serve the public good. We saw that tension rise dramatically in recent years, as heated debates over university budgets, tenure protections, and shared governance flared in Illinois, Louisiana, and my former home state, Wisconsin. For the most part, faculty responded by affirming our status as public servants, who needed sufficient resources and protections to serve the public good. Funding for higher education, we insisted, allows us to educate more students, to produce more innovative research, and to lend prestige and attract investment to our institutions and our states.

While this approach had the advantage of portraying our demands as selfless and altruistic, it also ran the risk of seeming hypocritical or disingenuous. Professors do, after all, have material interests. Like the public servants of Roosevelt’s era, we are concerned about our income, our working conditions, and the terms of our employment. This is particularly important to acknowledge in a time of rising economic insecurity and inequality. Inequality is sharpening within our own ranks: between tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, public and private institutions, and the sciences and humanities. But it also divides us from other workers employed by our institutions, such as those in clerical, janitorial, maintenance, and food-service positions. And, as we are reminded repeatedly by the media and politicians, many of us—though a dwindling proportion— are better off than other workers who pay the taxes that keep our institutions running.

So how do we balance our own interests in decent wages, working conditions, and fair treatment at work with our duty to serve the common good? The way unions confronted a similar paradox in the 1930s may offer an answer to that question.

The Example of AFSCME

Like today’s debate over the rights and privileges of public servants, the historical one began with a political revolution in Wisconsin, in this case led by Democrats who rode Roosevelt’s coattails to win control of the state government in 1932. To the alarm of progressives who remained loyal to the Republican Party, Democrats proposed to reform the state’s pioneering civil service system. While they claimed such reform would allow them to implement public works programs aimed at alleviating unemployment during the Great Depression, Republicans warned they would reinstate the notorious patronage system that had allowed politicians to hand out state jobs to those who had supported them in the previous election. “Hungry Dem Hordes Await Spoils Chase,” read a headline in Madison’s progressive newspaper, the Capital Times.

That threat was turned back by officials in the Civil Service Administration, who allied with Wisconsin’s powerful Federation of Labor to organize public employees into a small union. By the time Roosevelt issued his letter in 1937, that union had expanded into Illinois, New York, and other states and won a charter from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). To this day, AFSCME remains one of the largest and most effective unions of public employees in the United States.

But that success was not immediate, and it required AFSCME to confront the contradiction that Roosevelt had identified between the interests of public servants and their obligation to serve the public good. The nature of that confrontation became clear as AFSCME expanded from Madison to larger cities such as Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York and as its base shifted from relatively well-paid state bureaucrats to low-paid public service workers such as maids, janitors, garbage collectors, and nurses’ aides.

In many respects that expansion brought a very different meaning to the term “public servant.” Whereas AFSCME’s founders saw themselves as an altruistic elite—it was the only AFL union whose president had a PhD— the union’s new members were sometimes treated literally as servants. Maids and janitors were often excluded from civil service protections and garbage collectors were often employed as day laborers, giving them no claim to benefits or even to their jobs from one day to another. They were also overwhelmingly women, people of color, and immigrants—groups that had for centuries performed similar jobs as servants or slaves.

The tensions between those two meanings of public servant came to a head with the organization of emergency relief workers, the “Hungry Hordes” that AFSCME’s leaders had initially feared would destroy Wisconsin’s civil service system. While AFSCME defended that system in Wisconsin, other states and cities bypassed civil service rules to allow unemployed workers to clean streets and parks, build and repair public buildings, and staff child-care and recreation programs in public schools. As AFSCME’s founders had feared, that left those new employees without civil service protections and threatened to depress the wages, benefits, and working conditions of all public employees.

Initially, AFSCME did little to aid those unprotected workers. When relief workers launched strikes in New York, Chicago, and other cities in 1937 to demand better wages and civil service protections, union leaders expelled them on the grounds that strikes deprived the public of needed services and degraded the status of public servants. Those expelled locals joined together and won a charter from the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to create the United Public Workers of America (UPWA) . For the next two decades, public-sector union members were divided between AFSCME—whose members were mostly white, male, and well-paid—and the UPWA—whose members were mostly nonwhite, female, and low-wage workers.

But the story did not end there. In part this was because leaders of AFSCME recognized the need to organize, and effectively represent, both types of “public servant.” Starting in the 1940s, AFSCME’s leadership began to seek formal collective bargaining rights on behalf of low-wage public servants. This move was driven largely by their observation that such tactics were winning important gains for the UPWA. Competition with the UPWA also pushed AFSCME to fight against the gender and race discrimination that had long defined the working conditions and treatment of low-wage public servants. Once aloof—even overtly hostile—toward African American workers, AFSCME began to organize them in both northern and southern cities.

This convergence between AFSCME and the UPWA was hastened by the Cold War, which subjected the UPWA and other CIO unions to a storm of anticommunist repression. To weather that storm, leaders of the CIO expelled the UPWA and nine other unions and replaced them with new unions lead by anticommunists. In 1955, the AFL and CIO merged, and AFSCME gained jurisdiction over most remaining CIO public employee locals.

While those events stalled efforts to expand the union movement, they laid the basis for the rapid expansion of public-sector unionism in the 1960s and 1970s. As early as 1959, Business Week magazine called AFSCME the “union of the future.” Less recognized was the fact that AFSCME was by then one of the most racially diverse and gender-balanced unions in the United States. In addition to putting it on the cutting edge of a broader transformation in the nation’s working class, this also allowed AFSCME to finally transcend the contradiction between the interests of public servants and their duty to serve the public good.

This transcendence was evident in AFSCME’s political messaging in the 1960s and 1970s, which insisted that funding for public education, housing, health care, and other services was essential for both public servants and for the public they served. Privatization of public services threatened the jobs of AFSCME members, and also the quality of services on which the public relied. Rather than highlighting the public good above the interests of its members, AFSCME insisted that the two were deeply entwined.

That idea was central to AFSCME’s public message throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but it gained unprecedented attention in the spring of 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers who belonged to AFSCME. Hoping the strike would launch a nationwide campaign against poverty, King credited the sanitation workers with reminding Memphis and the entire nation that garbage workers were as important to public health as doctors. “So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in the so-called professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs,” he declared. “But . . . whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.” In linking the interests of public servants to those of the broader public, without privileging one over the other, King echoed a message that had emerged from AFSCME’s struggle to unite and win support for public servants in the 1940s and 1950s.


The history of AFSCME is useful as faculty members confront a similar debate over our status as workers and as public servants today. Some of us are fighting to defend tenure, which is increasingly at risk in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Some of us are fighting to win the protections of tenure for the first time, while others are fighting for more basic rights and decent wages and benefits. And that’s why the history of AFSCME can be so instructive.  In keeping with the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, we need to link our interests as public servants to those of the common good. Better wages and working conditions, “the dignity of labor,” are key to defending and improving public services that all of us rely on, whether in secondary and higher education, health care, or garbage collection.

William P. Jones is a Professor of History at the University of Minnesota and was previously a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His most recent book is The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2013) and he is currently writing a book about race and public employment.


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