The (Comparative) Rise Of Public Employee Unions

When I grew up in Akron, Ohio in the ’60s — at that time a classic blue-collar, Democratic city — unions were a big part of the landscape.  People paid attention to what the head of the United Rubber Workers had to say.  The men who headed the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, and the Teamsters Union were all familiar names.  People wondered about whether there would be a strike and what kind of impact it might have on our community.

In those days, of course, union membership in private sector jobs was much more common. (I was a union member twice — when I worked as a bag boy at Big Bear and was, I think, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and when I worked at the Toledo Blade and was a member of the Newspaper Guild.)  In 1945, 36 percent of all wage and salary workers in the United States were union workers.  By 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the percentage had fallen to 12.3 percent.

Moreover, the kind of workers who are union members has changed.  According to the U.S Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 more public sector employees (7.9 million) belonged to unions than did private sector employees (7.4 million), even though the private sector job force is about five times larger.  The Hoover Institution notes that the rise of public employee unions isn’t due so much to increasing the percentages of union members in public employee jobs, because those percentages have remained relatively constant at around 40 percent for the past 30 years.  The comparative “rise” of public employee unions therefore is the result of an increase in the number of public sector jobs and a decrease in the number of private sector workers who belong to unions.

Why is this so?  The AFL-CIO says it is because corporations block unionization drives.  I think the reasons are probably more complex.  One of the significant impetuses for unionization early in the 20th century was workplace safety.  These days, in most industries, workplace safety is heavily regulated by the federal government and there is correspondingly less need for organized worker efforts in that area.  In addition, many workers don’t like the idea of paying mandatory dues to unions, particularly when they see stories of union leaders who have engaged in corrupt activities with union funds.  Finally, many unions have not been particularly successful in securing long-term jobs for their members.  The highly unionized industries of my youth — the rubber industry, the auto industry, and the steel industry, to name just three — have seen significant job losses as plants in America have closed in the face of overseas competition.  We can argue about whether the unions’ success in collectively bargaining for higher wages and richer benefits in those industries contributed materially to the loss of those jobs, but there is no argument that fewer workers are employed in those industries.  Finally, employers seem to show much less fear of unions and strikes these days, and particularly in this economy it would not be difficult to find workers to replace those who had gone out on strike.

If I am right on the reasons for a decline in private sector union membership, why haven’t those same forces operated to affect public employee membership?  I think there are three reasons.  First, public employee jobs cannot move overseas.  Second, public employee unions can directly influence the decisions of those who are going to decide their wages and benefits by lobbying and contributions to political campaigns.  Third, the legislators and administrators who are making decisions about public employee wages and benefits are spending taxpayer money; they don’t need to sell more widgets or achieve greater worker productivity to justify increased wages and they don’t have to worry about competition.

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