A Strike at Government Monopoly


Public Employees, Unions, and the Erosion of Civic Trust: A Study of San Francisco in the 1970's, by Randolph H. Boehm and Dan C. Heldman, Frederick, Maryland: Aletheia Books, 1982, 265 pp., $25.00.

Randolph Boehm and Dan Heldman provide a detailed documented history of labor relations in San Francisco during a period of unprecedented conflict that included strikes, violence, and vandalism by city employees. It is an extremely useful presentation and provides considerable insight into urban politics and local-government labor relations. The picture that emerges is especially interesting because it is also subject to an interpretation different from the authors' emphasis.

In laying out their framework, Boehm and Heldman describe how public-sector unionism differs from that in the private sector because of the monopoly position of local governments. It is this monopoly position, where citizens have no close substitutes for local-government services and governments have the coercive power of taxation, that is said to give public-sector unions a much stronger bargaining position than that held by private unions. This difference between the public and private sector, however, does not appear to this reviewer to be the major source of problems in San Francisco.

The two major sources of problems in San Francisco appear to be incompetent fiscal management and corrupt politics—both of which created an environment of frustration for some public employees and in turn contributed to the divisiveness and violence of the strikes. Incompetent fiscal management was illustrated throughout by the inability of the city government to calculate accurately the impacts on the city budget of wage and fringe-benefit settlements. Initial estimates were often changed in the middle of negotiations, and even public officials who would have liked to develop a fair bargaining position were undercut by the city's lack of fiscal credibility.

The second, and most important, source of problems can best be described as political corruption. What emerged under Mayor Alioto was a coalition with craft unions whereby union officials and allies were appointed to the civil-service commission and other bodies involved in labor decisionmaking. It appears that in exchange for the craft unions' political support of Alioto's bid for the governorship and higher political offices, city craft-union employees received pay and fringe-benefit increases much greater than those of comparable private-sector employees, employees in other local governments, and other employees in San Francisco.

For example, in San Francisco, craft-union members such as street sweepers were paid much more than city police officers or fire fighters. These disparities became especially aggravating as inflation eroded the salaries of some employees while others continued to receive large increases. Even as the city became fiscally stressed, excessive wage and benefit settlements for some employees continued. This is the setting within which the police force and fire fighters engaged in strikes and violence and sanitation workers let untreated sewage flood San Francisco Bay.

Documentation of problems and issues surrounding labor relations in San Francisco is more extensive than can be conveyed in a brief review. Still, several very strong impressions emerge from Boehm and Heldman's analysis.

First, any mechanical formula for wage and fringe-benefit determination, such as private-sector comparability, can be manipulated. Manipulation is especially easy when union officials can write private-sector contracts to result in maximum public-employee benefits. Thus, wages are always going to be subject to negotiation and interpretation.

Second, both elected officials and the general public must have available good financial data in order to understand the implications of settlements. Without such data, manipulation becomes much easier and bargaining much less credible.

Third, in political decisionmaking there is always an opportunity for exploiting the system—as was done by Mayor Alioto and his allies.

Recognizing these constraints, the authors consider the fundamental question of who has the authority to levy taxes and determine public expenditures. Historically, citizens and elected officials have possessed this responsibility. But once public-sector workers have the legal authority to organize and to engage in negotiation, a dilemma appears: If strikes are outlawed, compulsory arbitration is required, which in turn means the arbitrators will make decisions binding on governments and hence supersede public officials' expenditure authority. Or, if strikes are permitted, disruption in the provision of services will result. Neither of these are ideal alternatives; but if workers are to have a voice in employment conditions, the alternatives are unavoidable.

Boehm and Heldman end their analysis without answers to the dilemma posed by public-sector unionism. I think, however, that their initial proposed model—that the monopoly position of governments makes strikes too disruptive and hence unions overly powerful—has itself blinded them to important evidence in their own work: that citizens can find substitutes for local-government services. For example, the authors describe how citizens coped with strikes and how supervisory employees, private firms, and volunteers can be organized to provide essential services as long as secondary boycotts are made illegal for public employees, as they are for private-sector employees.

Once the possibility of substitutes is recognized and planned for, the balance of power in public-employee negotiations shifts to the employer, who, unlike a private firm, continues to receive revenues while strikers are without income. Thus, while inconvenience may result from a strike, that inconvenience may be a smaller price for citizens to pay than to surrender the decisions on the largest expenditure for local government—wages—to outside decisionmakers. Then if arbitration, instead of permitting strikes, proves necessary for one or two classes of employees (such as fire fighters), the bounds for arbitrated awards are likely to be much narrower, because most public-sector labor settlements would have been achieved voluntarily.

In summary, Boehm and Heldman's analysis provides valuable insight into both urban politics and the problems of local-government labor relations. One should be prepared, however, to step beyond their own introductory framework, which has not led them to solutions to the dilemmas they pose, and instead to consider their own wealth of evidence and detail in a broader context in hopes that some intellectual progress in this important area will be forthcoming.

Robert L. Bish is a professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria in Canada.