Declining unions, increasing stranglehold

The new figures on union membership are out from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. They reveal a decidedly non-union American workforce, and a union movement in continuous decline. That has been known for some time, but the figures reveal a new milestone in unions’ clout with government.

Only 7.2% of private-sector workers, according to the BLS, are union members, down from 7.65% the previous year. In other words a full 92.8% of American workers in the private sector, the vast majority, are not union members. The BLS does not include self-employed workers, so even fewer in the private sector are not union members.

By the BLS count, the number of union members declined in 2009 by 771,000 to 15.3 million. That represents a steep drop from 1983, the first year with comparable data, when the union membership rate was 20.1%, and 17.7 million union workers were union members.

The percentage of all American workers who were members of a union in 2009 was 12.3%, a slight drop from 12.4% in 2008. A decline in numbers, however, does not mean a decline in union leverage with government, which has the most clout overall.

As the latest BLS statistics reveal, more union members – 7.9 million – now work for the government than the 7.4 million union members working for companies in the private economy, which has five times more workers. This imbalance has profound consequences for all workers, and for democracy itself.

The unions work three shifts, and spend considerable funds, to help elect politicians. The politicians, in turn, reward unionized government employees with higher salaries and benefits. Those must be paid for in taxes, and the process puts higher spending and taxes on autopilot.

Workers in the public sector have a stake in the expansion of government, and union bosses, unelected by the public, enjoy considerable leverage with lawmakers. Witness demands by Andy Stern (SEIU) and Rich Trumka (AFL-CIO) to exempt unions from the tax increase on high-cost health insurance plans in the president’s health care program.

Union membership is out of balance in other ways.

According to the BLS, about half of the 15.3 million union members live in only six states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey, “even though these states accounted for only one-third of wage and salary employment nationally.” California has the most union members at 2.5 million, followed by New York with 2.0 million. (In 2009 Michigan had 710,000 union members and a full 19.9% of those employed were represented by unions. In 2008, when Michigan had 770,001 union members and unions represented 19.6% of the Michigan workforce.)

Figures alone do not tell the whole story about the unlevel playing field in labor. To boost flagging membership, the unions want to dump the secret ballot in favor of “card check,” in which a union gains certification through signatures on union cards. Some politicians favor this change, a blatant disregard of the democratic process.

Governments also reserve work for unions – and exclude non-union labor – through measures such as Davis-Bacon and project labor agreements, or PLAs. Since the November 2008 elections 25 PLAs have been proposed for local governments in California. Uncompetitive and declining in the private sector, unions want to leverage government into giving them a monopoly.

That does not translate to a level working field, which government is supposed to ensure. The lesson of the BLS figures is that a movement in decline can increase power by leveraging government. That may be good for union bosses and their political allies but not for most American workers and certainly not for democracy itself.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director at the Pacific Research Institute, a nonprofit, free-market think tank, in San Francisco.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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