Paul Clark weighs in on public-sector unions in latest Democracy Works podcast

June 26, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From teachers to bus drivers to accountants and librarians, some 8 million state and federal workers in the U.S. are part of a public-sector union.  

A ruling expected by the Supreme Court this week could reduce the power of those unions, which would cause ripple effects throughout government and on democracy at large. In the case, Janus vs. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the court will decide whether people who are not members of these unions have to pay union fees.

Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State, is an expert on unions and discussed the implications of the ruling and the role that public-sector unions play in society on the latest Democracy Works podcast, produced by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

“In one fell swoop, this could really weaken public-sector unions across the country,” Clark said. “Many people who are represented by unions could get the services for free. That’s going to take big chunks of resources away from unions.”

All federal public employees and about half of state public employees are unionized, though the level of power each union has varies widely. For example, federal employees unions do not have the power to engage in collective bargaining over wages and benefits — two of the major chips in any workplace negotiation.

However, Clark cited the air traffic controllers union as one example of a group that has gotten creative in the face of these challenges.

“You cannot find a group of public employees who are more dedicated to the service they provide to the public,” Clark said. “They use their union to get a greater voice in how the air traffic control system is run. They’re the people with their hands on the control switches every day and want to have a voice at the table. Without a union, they probably wouldn’t have that voice.”

Earlier this year, teachers in Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma took to the street to protest decades of stagnant wages and being asked to do more with less. None of those states authorize public-sector unions, which Clark said is showing to be a poor decision in hindsight.

“These teachers are using their collective power outside of the union, outside of any law to say enough is enough. Those states have paid the price for in the past for not giving a voice to their teachers. If unions had existed there, they probably wouldn’t be in this place to begin with.”

For more information on the School of Labor and Employment Relations, visit For more information on the Democracy Works podcast, visit

  • Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations

    Paul Clark, Director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations

    IMAGE: School of Labor and Employment Relations
Last Updated June 26, 2018