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Unions Look to Government for Future Growth

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Unions have come to subsist on taxpayers. Last week, the Labor Department published 2012 data showing that the unionization rate in America continues to decline in both the private and government sectors. The 2012 numbers affirmed longstanding trends: that future union membership, growth, and dues will come from government workers.


For the fourth year in a row, there are more government union members than private sector union members. With a membership rate 5 times as high as the private sector, 35.9 percent of all government workers are unionized compared to 6.6 percent of private sector workers.

And this trend is unlikely to change. Private sector unions continue to price themselves out of work and their bureaucratic structure – which doesn’t allow for individual raises and compensation – only looks stranger every year. Inhibitory rules mean that the union policies disqualified their members from the ongoing manufacturing recovery.

As Heritage’s James Sherk notes, “Over one-eighth of manufacturing jobs disappeared between 2007 and 2010. Since then, however, employers have added approximately a half million new manufacturing jobs.

On net, however, all of that hiring took place in non-union firms. Between 2010 and 2012, non-union manufacturing employment expanded by 6.5 percent. At the same time, unionized manufacturing employment continued to fall, dropping another 4.7 percent.”

Manufacturing unions’ self-imposed decline is indicative of the plight of private sector unions – companies don’t want to hire unions and workers don’t want to join them.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, many of the market forces that keep unions in check in the private sector are not present in government. If a company is inefficient and makes poor investments, it goes out of business. If a locality or state makes equally disastrous personal decisions, its citizens foot the bill – there are few built in mechanisms to control government spending.


With private sector union membership falling from 24 percent in 1973 to 6.6 percent today, unions can read the writing on the wall – their future is predicated on their ability to unionize government workers. This business model is a bit ironic since 1955 A.F.L.-C.I.O. President George Meany – one of the fathers of the labor movement –rejected the very idea of government sector unions saying, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” President Franklin Roosevelt, who signed and advocated for the seminal National labor Relations Act, thought that government unions would be “unthinkable and intolerable.”

But that was before private sector union membership began to slide. Unions know that the larger government is, the larger the pool of potential union members. Understanding this simple fact explains Big Labor’s marriage with the Democrat Party, which views bigger government as better government.

According to reports filed with the Department of Labor, between 2005 and 2011 unions spent $3.3 billion on political activity, nearly all of which went to Democrat initiatives or candidates. Researches are still tabulating 2012 election data but no one expects these numbers to drastically change.

Union clout is largely based on the size of their political war chest. Any politician that threatens the flow of members’ dues is immediately targeted. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker was recalled as were four State Senators; in Ohio, Governor Kasich’s austerity reforms were put to a referendum; in Michigan – which just became the 25th Right-to-Work state – a handful of legislators and maybe even the governor are anticipating recall elections.


With their backs against the wall, look for union spending to increase as every state battle becomes more essential to their significance. But some change is inevitable, and unless unions overhaul their compensation system and arcane rules, next year there will be even less union members.

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