Dmitri Melhorn says the union movement is missing an opportunity to be more relevant in the private sector, because public sector unions don’t help poorer workers (because public sector union members are middle class professionals, not working class):
Progressive hostility to [Harris v. Quinn], however, is shortsighted. Harris and decisions like it have the potential to revitalize progressive politics by restoring the relevance and political potency that labor held in the early-to-mid-20th century. The great labor leaders of that era — AFL-CIO President George Meany, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the like — agreed with the majority in Harris: it was both impractical and inadvisable to afford public employees compulsory collective bargaining rights.
Roosevelt said that collective bargaining and public workers’ right to strike would be “unthinkable and intolerable.” Meany said it would be “impossible.” In the view of these leaders, civil service laws from the Progressive Era of the 1890s to 1920s had made government jobs good and safe. Labor and progressives, therefore, needed to focus on blue-collar workers’ need to fight collectively for basic safety, dignity and living wages. Through this focus, the United States saw historic gains in the well-being of workers and the country’s middle class.
That labor heyday lasted through the 1950s, but starting in the late 1960s labor lost ground. Public-sector unions grew rapidly, but private-sector unions shrank. By 2012, public-sector workers had union membership rates more than five times higher than rates among private-sector workers.
Essentially, the public-sector unions sucked up all the oxygen. Talented labor organizers opted to work with government workers: their members were relatively prosperous and well connected, so they were easy and lucrative to organize. As explained in Jake Rosenfeld’s book What Unions No Longer Do from earlier this year, this shift to public-sector unions meant that unions no longer fought primarily for the working poor. Instead, much of their muscle was devoted to improving the status of middle-class professionals.