Bruce Bartlett

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.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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