Do unions rule elections still?

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Jan 23, 2004 12:00 AM

One of the more remarkable results of last Monday's Iowa caucuses was the utter collapse of Congressman Dick Gephardt, who won the caucuses in 1988.  The political clout of organized labor also took a hit.  There may be larger political implications from this result.

Although it is thought of primarily as an agricultural state, Iowa has long had a strong organized labor presence.  John Deere manufactures much of its farm equipment there and its workers all belong to the United Auto Workers.  For this reason, labor support has long been viewed as critical in the caucuses, especially on the Democratic side.  Because the caucus system puts a premium on organization, the candidate with labor endorsement automatically inherits a well-oiled operation--historically, an extremely valuable asset.

As time has gone by, however, labor's fortunes in Iowa have fallen.  Furthermore, the composition of organized labor in Iowa has shifted sharply away from private manufacturing jobs to government.  This hurt Gephardt because his base in the labor movement has always been among the old industrial unions in the steel and auto industries.  Such workers are highly receptive to his attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and calls for trade protection.

When Gephardt won Iowa in 1988, there were 168,441 union members in the state, 14.6 percent of all employed workers.  Of these, 72,889 or 43 percent were employed in manufacturing.  Two-thirds of all Iowa's union members were employed in the private sector, one-third in the public sector.

Jump ahead to 2002, the latest year for which state level data is available, and we see that overall union membership has fallen to 152,615, 11 percent of total employment in Iowa.  Private sector union membership has fallen by 22,025 and manufacturing accounts for more than 20,000 of that figure.  Union membership in manufacturing is down by 28 percent since 1988.  Because public sector unionization and jobs have continued to rise, public sector workers now account for 42 percent of Iowa's union membership.

This trend shows up in the national data as well.  According to figures just released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall union membership has fallen to a new low of 12.9 percent of employment, down from 13.3 percent last year.  When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, 21.4 percent of workers belonged to a labor union.  In the 1950s, about a third of all employed workers belonged to a labor union.

Almost all the growth in union membership has been in the public sector.  Among government workers, 37.2 percent belong to a union.  In the private sector, only 8.2 percent do.  As a consequence, 46 percent of all union members now work in government.  In 1981, 83 percent of union members worked in the private sector and only 17 percent in the public sector.

In 1981, there were 6,665,900 union members working in manufacturing nationally.   They represented 35 percent of all union members.  Last year, there were just 2,173,000 union members working in manufacturing, 13.8 percent of the total.

The problem is that private sector union members and those in the public sector have quite different and oftentimes conflicting interests.  For one thing, public sector workers have no fear of international competition and little fear of layoffs, givebacks and other concerns that private sector workers, especially in manufacturing, must deal with today.  Moreover, when public sector workers strike for higher pay and benefits, private sector workers foot the bill in their taxes.  Thus, public sector union members' gains come at the expense of those in private sector unions.

Since public sector unions have less concern for the meat-and-potatoes economic issues that primarily motivate private sector union members, they tend to be much more ideological, often involving themselves in issues outside the direct economic interests of their members.  These would include supporting strict environmental regulations that cost jobs for their private sector brothers. 

Consequently, it is no surprise that government employee unions backed Howard Dean over Mr. Gephardt.

As it turned out, both the private sector unions and the public sector unions took a hit in Iowa.  According to entrance polls, union members accounted for just 23 percent of Iowa caucus attendance, down from 33 percent as recently as 2000.  Of those union members voting, 29 percent backed John Kerry, Dean and John Edwards each got 22 percent, and Gephardt got just 19 percent.  The polls also indicate that just 50,000 of Iowa's union members, less than a third, are now registered as Democrats.

It is too soon to say whether the Iowa results will be replicated in New Hampshire and other primary states.  But it is a sure bet that campaigning in Iowa has changed forever.  No longer can we assume that the candidate with the strongest union support will be the prohibitive favorite in the caucuses.