Unions Flood Public Sector, Drain Away from Private Sector

Published March 11, 2010

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union membership for 2009 marked a historic turning point for organized labor and for the nation.

The headline news was that labor unions had lost 771,000 members and union density—the percent of the workforce belonging to unions—fell from 12.4 percent in 2008 to 12.3 percent in 2009. But that wasn’t the real story by any means.

Underlying that news was this: On private payrolls unions lost 835,000 members and union density fell from 7.6 in 2008 to 7.2 percent, but in public employment unions gained 64,000 members and union density increased to 37.4 percent from 36.8 in 2008.

Big Shift to Government
As a result of these changes a long-anticipated transformation of organized labor occurred in 2009. Although only 16.5 percent of jobs in the U.S. workforce are in government, now more union members are public employees than on private payrolls.

This was a long time in coming. Year after year in state after state this shift has been taking place. The self-interest of organized labor has inclined unions to use their economic and political influence to expand public employment and to support tax increases.

From a purely self-interested view this makes sense. Every 100 jobs lost in the private sector costs the unions only 7.2 members, whereas a reduction of 100 jobs on public payrolls costs unions 37.4 members.

Unions Linked to Government
These changes in job distribution make it increasingly likely that employees on private payrolls will view unionism as a government employee thing and the cause of their various complaints against government, such as poor quality schools and high taxes. This may in fact already be happening.

Last August the Gallup Poll reported that, for the first time since it began asking the question in 1936, public support for unions had fallen below 50 percent. In February 2010 the Pew Foundation reported poll results showing a plurality of the public don’t support unions.

The unionism situation differs widely from state to state. In 2009 the number of government union members exceeded the number on private payrolls in 33 states. The reasons for this were as different as the states themselves.

In some states with much lower-than-average levels of public sector union activity, such as Virginia, New Mexico, and South Dakota, there were more government union members because private sector unions were virtually nonexistent. The number of government union members didn’t exceed those in the private sector in some states with well-above-average levels of public sector union activity, like Illinois, Michigan and Washington, because of high union density on private payrolls.

The Public Service Research Foundation has tables and charts showing employment, union membership and density (public and private) for each state from 1983 to 2009. This information, available from PSRF on request, has proven useful to public officials, scholars and opinion leaders in dealing with issues related to union influence on public policy.

David Denholm ([email protected]) is president of the Public Service Research Foundation, a nonprofit research and education organization concerned with public policy on unionism in public employment and union political influence on government.

Internet Info

US Bureau of Labor Statistics union summary for 2009: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm

Public Service Research Foundation: http://www.psrf.org