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Sewer Syndicalism: Worker Self-Management in Public Services
Nevada Law Journal (2014)
  • Eric M Fink

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, municipal governments in various US cities assumed responsibility for utilities and other services that previously had been privately operated. In the late twentieth century, prompted by fiscal crisis and encouraged by neo-liberal ideology, governments embraced the concept of “privatization,” shifting management and control over public services to private entities.

Despite disagreements over the merits of privatization, both proponents and opponents accept the premise of a fundamental distinction between the “public” and “private” sectors, and between “state” and “market” institutions. A more skeptical view questions the analytical soundness and practical significance of these dichotomies. In this view, “privatization” is best understood as a rhetorical strategy, part of a broader neo-liberal ideology that relies on putative antinomies of “public” v. “private” and “state” v. “market” to obscure and reinforce social and economic power relations.

While “privatization” may be an ideological definition of the situation, for public service workers the difference between employment in the “public” and “private” sectors can be real in its consequences for job security, compensation, and other respects. Yet, in both the “public” or “private” sectors, workers labor under similar conditions of bureaucratic-managerial control, regardless of whether the boss represents a government agency or private company. Against these sibling forms of hierarchical control, this work posits the alternative of “public service syndicalism,” under which workers themselves take responsibility for managing public service operations.

Worker self-management in public services has been rare in the United States. But examples, both here and elsewhere, do exist. Most recently, the British government, as part of its “Big Society” agenda, has pursued the creation of employee-run public service “mutuals.” Critics within the labor movement and the left have regarded that initiative with suspicion, seeing it as an effort to continue a neo-liberal agenda under the guise of worker empowerment. Yet, the fact that a center-right British government has at least embraced the language of worker control in public services suggests that similar experimentation may be politically feasible in the United States as well.

  • privatization,
  • public services,
  • worker self-management,
  • syndicalism,
  • economic democracy
Publication Date
Spring April 30, 2014
Citation Information
Eric M Fink. "Sewer Syndicalism: Worker Self-Management in Public Services" Nevada Law Journal Vol. 14 Iss. 2 (2014)
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