Commentary: The Prospects for Labor's Role in Redefining Public Values

Date01 July 2014
Published date01 July 2014
516 Public Administration Review • July | August 2014
Peter Goodman
Ed in the Apple
In his article “Implicit Public Values and the
Creation of Publicly Valuable Outcomes:  e
Importance of Work and the Contested Role of
Labor Unions,” John W. Budd calls for the “reinven-
tion of traditional labor unions or the development of
new organizations and institutions.”
ere is no question that the “traditional labor
unions” have been f‌i ghting the last war.  e leadership
of the AFL-CIO has been slow to respond to a chang-
ing workplace and a changing labor force. Technology
advances only escalate, and the nature of work is
evolving. Low-skilled jobs have vaulted overseas seek-
ing the lowest bidder, and robots are far better than
humans at assembling automobiles.  e economy,
a decade or so down the road, will be made up of
knowledge workers and low-paid service employees.
Some traditional unions are indeed working to create
“work-related publicly valuable outcomes” in the
quest for “economic fairness,” as Budd advises, or
have done so.  e American Federation of Teachers,
for example, is a primary sponsor of “Reconnecting
McDowell” (,
working with the State of West Virginia to revitalize
McDowell County, one of the poorest counties in the
nation. Similarly, after the devastating earthquake in
Haiti, that union sponsored health clinics staf‌f ed by
its members, teachers, and nurses. In New York State,
union members and organizations such as the Central
Labor Council and the Professional Staf‌f Congress are
at the forefront of lobbying ef‌f orts on behalf of a con-
troversial law that would enable undocumented high
school graduates to be eligible for tuition assistance
grants, like all other high school graduates.
In 2011 and 2102, Occupy Wall Street raised hopes
for a resurgence of the kind of social consciousness
that could provide the necessary foundation for
unions to play a far more ef‌f ective role in creating
publicly valuable outcomes. For a few short months, a
grassroots movement appeared to emerge. Rhiannon
Giddens’s protest song “ e Bottom 99” (see http://,
evoking memories of Woody Guthrie, captured the
essence of that hopeful spirit.
But then came the attack on the teacher unions in
Wisconsin and the failure of the union ef‌f ort to
unseat Governor Scott Walker in response in 2012.
at, along with the failure of the United Auto
Workers’ recognition vote at the Volkswagen plant in
Chattanooga, Tennessee, this year, even in the face
of management neutrality, brought home a harsh
reality: the relative impotence of the traditional labor
e election was vigorously opposed by Grover
Norquist’s Center for Worker Freedom and the
Tennessee Republicans; to use the terminology of
Budd’s article in these pages, the opposition sub-
scribes to an “egoist model,” in which labor unions
are seen as simply the mechanism for inappropri-
ate interference with labor’s proper role as a mere
Budd’s call is welcome indeed, but labor faces very
serious obstacles in answering it in the face of the
new workforce. One must wonder whether Google
employees would “organize” to lobby for causes in
national and international venues or whether unions
e Prospects for Labor’s Role in Redef‌i ning Public Values
Peter Goodman was local union leader
for the United Federation of Teachers (AFL-
CIO) and served on the union executive
board, as a member of the negotiating
team, and as a delegate to state and
national union conventions. He advises a
New York City Council member and a mem-
ber of the New York State Board of Regents
on education policy issues. He currently
writes a blog, Ed in the Apple: The
Intersection of Education and Politics
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 4, pp. 516–517. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12236.

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