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Tipsheet: State legislators pushing to limit power of public-employee unions could deal major blow to labor movement, widen income gap, slow pay gains for women

by Jan. 6, 2011, 4:26 PM

Dan Cornfield

As state legislators deal with growing budget deficits and nervous taxpayers, many are pushing new legislation to limit the power of labor unions – particularly those representing government workers. If lawmakers are successful, Vanderbilt University labor sociologist Dan Cornfield believes this will be a historic shift in the power of labor unions.

“Public sector employee unions are among the largest in the labor movement. As workers in the vital ‘post-industrial’ employment sectors of healthcare, sanitation, social services, education, and protective services – such as first responders, firefighters and police – they are part of the future of the labor movement,” he said.

“Efforts to weaken unions and cut wages and benefits among state and local government workers in the U.S. will reduce worker bargaining power and widen the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the nation.”

According to Cornfield, editor of the international sociological journal Work and Occupations, de-unionization will reduce worker bargaining power because state and local government workers constitute a sizable sector of U.S. union membership – comprising 45 percent of all union members, but only 14 percent of the national labor force. He says labor statistics also show that one third of state government workers and 40 percent of local government workers are unionized compared to 7 percent of private-sector workers.

He also believes the legislation, if passed, will have a significant impact on the gender gap in compensation.

“Reducing the bargaining power, wages, salaries and benefits of the predominantly female labor force of state and local government workers will contribute to the already widening gap in the incomes of high- and low-wage workers, as well as slow any gains made in reducing the gender gap in pay. Women comprise 60 percent of state and local government workers, but only about 45 percent of federal government and private-sector workers,” he said.

Media interested in interviewing Cornfield can reach him at 615-322-2706 or at daniel.b.cornfield@vanderbilt.edu.

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