Federalism (Issue)

views updated Jun 11 2018


Federalism is the division of powers and duties among various levels of government. In the U.S. context federalism refers to the division of powers and duties among the state governments and the federal, or national, government.

Ever since the founding of the British North American colonies in 1607, the United States struggled with federalism in five distinct phases. During the colonial era, federalism's first phase, colonial governments controlled local affairs but deferred to Britain to set policies for the whole British Empire. The question on where to draw the lines of power between a central government and the colonial/state governments arose beginning with the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, when colonists first started to question the imperial relationship with the United Kingdom, through to the era of the American Revolution (17751783). At that time, a first response was to keep governmental power as close to the people as possible, which meant leaving governmental power in the localities and transforming colonial government into state governments.

Still some central government proved necessary to carry on the war effort against Great Britain during the Revolution, and also to conduct foreign relations and to secure foreign aid. To meet this need the Second Continental Congress (an ad hoc national body) drafted the Articles of Confederation which took effect in 1781. In this second manifestation of federalism, power remained in the states which confederated themselves for limited national purposes stated in the Articles of Confederation.

A flaw developed in this scheme: the states acted in their own interests often at the expense of other states and any national interests. As a result, the Articles of Confederation seemed inadequate which led to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution in 17871788. When the first Congress met under the new Constitution in 1789, Americans experienced a new form of federalism. States retained large powers over their populations and some concurrent powers with the federal government, while the central government possessed enumerated powers to both defend itself against the states and check any excess of power in the states. Scholars describe this phase of federalism as dual federalism.

Over time, defenders of minority interests began to claim that not only did states have rights, but they were also sovereign. Southerners, in particular, argued in favor of this state sovereignty position to defend their declining numbers in the country, their lifestyle, and their form of property (slaves). Was the United States a national Union or a mere confederation of the states? Southerners answered this question by claiming to secede to form their own confederation in 1861, while Northerners and Midwesterners believed that secession from a national Union was impossible; the result was the American Civil War (18611865) and Reconstruction (18651877).

With the end of the war and the process of Reconstruction under way, the nation adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution on July 9, 1868. This amendment, which marks the beginning of federalism's fourth phase, rearranged the division of powers and duties among the levels of U.S. government. With the Fourteenth Amendment national power prevailed over state power. An understanding of this form of federalism can be seen in a key U.S. Supreme Court decision that defined federalism after the Civil War, Texas v. White (1869). For a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase stated that "the Constitution in all its provisions looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible states." While the states would not disappear or be absorbed by the central government, neither would they be as free to set policies as prior to the war.

States played an important role in the lives of U.S. citizens up to the Great Depression (19291939). With the Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt's (19331945) New Deal to overcome the economic catastrophe of the Depression, federalism shifted into its fifth phase. National power came to dominate American lives in ways never before imagined because bureaucratic federalism emerged. In this form of federalism, Congress, federal agencies, and federal bureaus set national policies and mandates, and the states complied. The states deferred to national authority as more power shifted to the national government. This trend slowed during the 1980s and 1990s when public concern grew that the central government was too powerful and the states too weak. As a result, in the late 1990s federalism might be shifting back towards a more balanced national picture of federal power coexisting with viable and responsible state governments.

See also: Constitution (Economic Benefits of), Stamp Act, States' Rights


Hyman, Harold and William M. Wiecek. Equal Justice Under Law: Constitutional Development, 18351875. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Kelly, Alfred H., Winfred A. Harbison, and Herman Belz. The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991.

Levy, Leonard W., Kenneth L. Karst, and Dennis J. Mahoney, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1986.

American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

views updated May 21 2018


AMERICAN FEDERATION OF STATE, COUNTY, AND MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEES. Primarily a labor union for workers in the public sector, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) evolved from the Wisconsin State Administrative, Clerical, Fiscal, and Technical Employees Association, the first such statewide organization. Formed under the leadership of A. E. Garey in 1932 to lobby for civil service protection for public employees in Wisconsin, the union led the drive for a national union of public employees under the guidance of Arnold Zander, a Wisconsin state-personnel examiner. In December 1935 the Wisconsin Association combined with fourteen other public employee unions to become AFSCME and was organized as a department of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The following September, AFSCME was chartered as an independent union within the AFL, and Zander was elected as the international union's first president.

With 10,000 members by the end of 1936, AFSCME used its clout to lobby at the state level for better civil service laws to protect its members from arbitrary dismissals and ensure fair hiring practices in public agencies. By 1955, AFSCME's membership had climbed to more than 100,000 workers, and the union began to demand the right to collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions, a precedent that had no clear basis in existing labor law. By executive order in 1958, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner granted collective bargaining rights to unions representing city employees, the first such recognition by a government entity. AFSCME secured another key victory in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy recognized the right of federal employees to enter into collective bargaining. By 1965, AFSCME had more than 250,000 members.

In 1964 Jerry Wurf, director of New York City's powerful District Council 37, succeeded Zander as international president, a post he held until his death in 1981. Under Wurf's leadership, AFSCME continued to pressure government entities to grant collective bargaining rights and expanded its agenda to include civil rights issues. Tragically, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he was in Memphis in support of an AFSCME garbage collectors' strike over union recognition and antidiscrimination employment policies. With a rising proportion of its membership drawn from diverse minority groups, AFSCME continued to take an active role in civil rights matters in succeeding years. The union also created one of the largest labor political-action committees in the United States to lobby for legislation and offer campaign support for political candidates, typically from the Democratic Party.

While industrial unions faced declining membership in the 1970s and 1980s, AFSCME continued to grow as it organized office and professional staffs along with hospital employees, custodians, drivers, and laborers at every level of government service. With AFSCME membership reaching 1.3 million in 2000, the union was active in opposing efforts to privatize government services, which it viewed as a significant threat to its members' job security, wages, and benefits. The union was also instrumental in securing a Supreme Court ruling in 1991 that recognized the right to organize workers at private hospitals. After Jerry Wurf's death in 1981, Gerald W. McEntee, only the third international president to lead the union, was elected AFSCME's top official.


Goulden, Joseph. Jerry Wurf: Labor's Last Angry Man. New York: Atheneum, 1982. Biography of AFSCME's longtime international president.

LeBeau, Josephine, and Kevin Lynch. "Successful Organizing at the Local Level: The Experience of AFSCME District Council 1707." In A New Labor Movement for the New Century. Edited by Gregory Mantsios. New York: Monthly Re-view Press, 1998. Summary of AFSCME's contemporary organizing strategies.

Stieber, Jack. Public Employee Unionism: Structure, Growth, Policy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1973. Although dated, provides the best summary of AFSCME's bureaucratic structure.

Timothy G.Borden

See alsoLabor .

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American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees