What to Watch on Jobs Day: Public sector jobs are threatened by austerity and attacks on collective bargaining

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. The Court’s 5-4 decision bars unions from requiring state and local government workers who benefit from union representation to pay their fair share of that representation. As a result, public sector unions will be up against a classic free rider problem, in which all the workers in a bargaining unit will be legally entitled to union representation, even if they don’t pay a penny for the benefits and services the union provides. This decision will have profound implications for all state and local government workers throughout the country, not just the share covered by a union contract.

To get a sense of the number of workers directly affected by this decision, let’s take a look at state and local government employment. According to the Current Employment Statistics survey, there are nearly 20 million state and local workers in the economy today. This represents about 13 percent of the overall workforce. The majority of these state and local workers are in the education sector. State and local education workers top 10 million, representing 53 percent of all state and local government workers.

At the same time as attacks on public sector collective bargaining erode compensation and job quality, austerity has held back employment and wage growth. State and local workers—such as the teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma who were recently protesting not just their low wages but lack of funding in the classroom—have already been hammered by years of austerity policy at all levels of government. In states like Wisconsin, tax cuts for the most well off in the early 2010s were financed by the layoffs and cuts to public employees’ wage and benefits. As of the beginning of this school year, local public education employment was still lower than it was before the Great Recession, and much lower than where it could be if employment had kept up with the growth in school enrollment. This means, in this past school year, we experienced a shortfall of over 300,000 public educators.

In addition to educators, state and local public sector workers work as police officers and firefighters, in hospitals and libraries, and provide important services in public transit, waste management, and home health care. In these ways, the Janus decision affects not just those public sector workers directly but also the critical services they provide. This attack on public sector workers and their well-being not only lessens those workers’ ability to make ends meet, but undermines the public services they provide.

On Friday, I will continue to track employment in both the public and private sector. As usual, I will also be closely examining labor force participation and nominal wage growth as the economy continues to slowly and steadily move towards full employment.