To understand Shilpa Viswanath’s career trajectory, one has only to look back into her childhood – a dinner table filled with conversations around ongoing government policies, organized strikes and the importance of labor unions. Add to that a front-row seat to the drastic transformation of a city in the midst of an information technology boom and its consequent impact on the economic, social, political and cultural fabric of local communities.

Shilpa Viswanath, an international academic draws attention to the plight of public sector unionism in New Jersey (Photo: Courtesy of Shilpa Viswanath)

Viswanath’s father worked for the state government in India, while her mother, a sociology and industrial relations professor, was a union member of the Bangalore University College Teachers Association, striking often for teachers’ wage security. Meanwhile, the city she grew up in, Bengaluru, was evolving into the Silicon Valley of India. “As a young adult, I grew up believing that if you want to change the world, you could do so via public policy,” says the 35-year-old who will graduate this week with a Ph.D. from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark.

During her five years working toward her doctoral degree in public administration, Viswanath focused on understanding the role of local government employees through a legal and constitutional analysis. During her yearlong fellowship at the Center on Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity at Rutgers Law School in early 2016, she learned about the crisis in Atlantic City where the state government had intervened to prevent a potential bankruptcy.

The city entered into a state receivership – which gives the state the power to oust locally elected officials and take complete control in running the municipality in ways it sees fit. “The precariousness of local government employees during state takeovers is something that shocked me,” she says.

The changes implemented by the state impacted hundreds of jobs at the municipal level, which led to lawsuits filed by the police and firefighters unions. She analyzed the substantive rights and procedural due process rights of local government employees in situations of municipal takeovers, while also examining the legal contracts of local labor unions and the process of renegotiating these contracts during a state takeover.

Viswanath also worked as a legislative policy fellow at the New Jersey State Legislature in early 2018 as part of the Eagleton Fellowship Program. Along with assisting the House Judiciary Committee in research and analysis of new and proposed legislation, she also worked closely with lawyers in the New Jersey Assembly Democrats office to understand the commonalities and differences between legislative policy and public policy.

Her research highlights the struggles of the local public sector unions in preserving the rights of local government employees. Her work has drawn the attention of scholars and students to the plight of public sector unions in New Jersey. “Outside of local media, this issue surprisingly hasn’t received much attention,” she says. “Imagine not having first responders such as police officers or firefighters on call during a crisis situation in an already bankrupt municipality. This is a real problem.”

The themes of gender and equity have also been central to Viswanath’s research. “My daughter was only 2 years old when I started my Ph.D. program in 2014 as a full-time student and teaching assistant at the School of Public Affairs and Administration,” she says. “So the recurring theme of my Ph.D. life has been childcare, or rather the lack of it. We need both formal infrastructures like campus childcare, supporting maternal and parental professional development, and informal structures within departments like a professional support group and mentors, who can see you through this journey while understanding your circumstances.”

Juggling a demanding career in academia while caring for her young child was one of the few inspirations behind Viswanath’s research on the importance of gender-responsive budgeting –  which involves incorporating a gender perspective in government planning and budgeting and investment to address gender gaps – especially in sectors such as public health, public education, public transport and childcare. Viswanath also serves as an executive board member of the Section for Women in Public Administration  of the American Society for Public Administration, where she works toward achieving gender equity and gender representation in academia.

The other motivator in her academic life has been her doctoral advisor, Norma M. Riccucci, who was one of the pioneers in studying women and minorities in labor unions almost three decades ago. Riccucci’s work on labor unions helped inspire Viswanath’s own research into public sector unions.

As she prepares to kickstart the next phase of her academic journey as a tenure-track assistant professor of political science and public administration at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in fall 2019, Viswanath hopes to carry forward these research themes.

“Both gender budgeting and labor unionism focus on issues of social equity,” she says. “As I transition from my Ph.D. to assistant professorship, I really hope that my research can fuel my teaching through which I can ultimately empower my students.”