Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who brought us modern labor law, famously believed that collective bargaining does not belong in the public sector. This may seem strange to modern readers who know FDR as a supporter of organized labor. Let’s take a closer look at what FDR actually said.
In 1937, Roosevelt wrote to the President of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a government union, and gave his opinion that employee organizations have a “logical” role in government. Roosevelt believed that government employees should organize in order to ensure “fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions . . . and impartial consideration and review of grievances.”
However, Roosevelt was careful to clarify that “meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.” In particular, he believed that collective bargaining agreements were incompatible with public sector work:
The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.
FDR’s issue with government collective bargaining is that in our system of government, “we the people” set public policy through the democratic process. Binding the people to a collective bargaining agreement takes authority away from the people.
FDR applies similar logic to the topic of strikes:
. . . a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.
The issues FDR was concerned about affect us today. For example, the Monarch Fire Protection District is still bound by the terms of a collective bargaining agreement signed years ago, before voters put a new, pro-taxpayer board in charge of the district. And in University City, unrest with the firefighters union has caused a couple of incidents imperiling public safety. Now the University City firefighters union is using a collective bargaining agreement to try to limit the city manager’s discretion in contracting out for basic services and managing public safety.
Regardless of whether we should go as far as Roosevelt and prohibit collective bargaining in our government, it is important to craft labor relations laws in light of the important differences between the public and private sectors. Laws ensuring that government remains accountable, even when government workers are unionized, could be called Roosevelt laws in honor of FDR’s legacy.