Protecting Employers Since 1985

Public Sector Labor Relations is Different

(Third part of the series on the State of Labor Unions in America)

Any analysis of private vs public sector labor relations must start with the legal underpinnings. The private sector has a long history of regulation under the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA dates to 1935. To a degree, the NLRB is political because the party of the US President gets to appoint three of the five NLRB members, plus the General Counsel. So, the party holding the President’s office has a huge upper hand in setting labor policy. But, it is nothing like the vast diversity of state laws addressing public sector bargaining. In just one area (teachers bargaining) one can see the wide differences in philosophy.


Illegal Legal No regulation
Georgia North Carolina South Carolina Texas Virginia Alabama Alaska Arkansas California Colorado Connecticut Delaware District of Columbia Florida Hawaii Idaho Illinois Indiana Iowa Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Maine Maryland Massachusetts Michigan Minnesota
Mississippi Missouri Montana Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire New Jersey New Mexico New York North Dakota Ohio Oklahoma Oregon Pennsylvania Rhode Island South Dakota Tennessee Utah Vermont Washington West Virginia Wisconsin Wyoming

There are many curve balls. State statutes are all over the board on issues like the right to strike, mandatory union dues, exactly what can be negotiated and cannot be negotiated, interest arbitration, etc.

Public sector bargaining was permitted in Illinois even before its 1983 law creating labor boards not unlike the NLRB model. One need look only at a sampling of public sector labor contracts in Illinois to conclude that the skepticism of the early days was justified. How could collective bargaining possibly work when the management side of the table was filled by politicians who were dependent on union votes for reelection? How could it work when both sides of the table knew that profitability was irrelevant? How could it work when the only real economic constraint was the ability to raise taxes? Isn’t this bargaining against the public interest? It certainly appears that the early skeptics were right all along. A classic illustration is AFSCME Council 31’s 196 page master contract with the State of Illinois. No private sector labor contracts are this long, this detailed, or this monumentally dense and cumbersome. Try to read it sometime! Not only would it be terribly confusing for any HR administrator, but the benefits and pro-union language are astonishing:

  • 13 holidays;
  • 5 weeks’ vacation;
  • No docking for tardiness;
  • Cadillac healthcare plan;
  • Rich pension plan;
  • Rigid disciplinary policy;
  • State of Illinois commitment that it will not oppose a union trying to organize any group of state employees;
  • Mandated two-15 minute daily rest periods;
  • State to provide conference and meeting rooms for union use;
  • Cumbersome seniority and bidding procedure;
  • Complicated grievance procedure;
  • Twelve sick days per year;
  • “Inconvenience” pay – extra money if your schedule is changed during any week;
  • Paid time off for a laundry list of union activities;
  • Union use of state meeting space and equipment (copies machine and phones) for grievance processing;
  • Complicated overtime distribution provision using both seniority and equalization principles;
  • Complicated voluntary overtime provision;
  • “Fair share” commitment – mandatory union dues;
  • Ability of the state to subcontract only by following a detailed procedure, including 45 days’ notice to AFSCME, preparation by the state of a detailed cost comparison, and complex meeting protocols;
  • Six single spaced pages devoted to a complicated bumping procedure;
  • 37 ½ hour work week with time and a half overtime pay after 37 ½ hours, rather than 40.

So, this is how it is all worked out. In Illinois we have 35,000 state employees covered by an AFSCME contract that is choking the state. It was negotiated by politicians, so why are we surprised? A common comment we hear from those trying to change things is that “AFSCME runs the state government”. Perhaps those who were skeptical back in the 1950s were right after all.

Questions? Contact Attorney Richard Wessels in our St. Charles office at (630) 377-1554 or by email at

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