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The New Face of Organized Labor


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will release its annual report on union membership for 2009 on Friday. The Heritage Foundation’s labor-policy expert, James Sherk, has already looked at last year’s month-by-month employment reports and can reliably predict what the report will say.

He finds:

* Labor movement membership continued to fall in 2009. While a full 23.0 percent of Americans belonged to labor unions in 1980, last year only 12.3 percent carried the union card. Last year there were 15.3 million union members in the United States, down 770,000 from the previous year.

* The real takeaway in the BLS report is the transformation of the labor movement. A majority of union members in America (52 percent) now work for the government. This is up sharply from 49 percent in 2008. Put another way, Sherk finds, three times more union members now work in the Post Office than in the auto industry.

* Union membership in the productive sector of our economy continued its long-term downward spiral, falling from 20.1 percent in 1980 to a mere 7.2 percent in 2009.

* A full 37.4 percent of government employees now belong to unions in 2009, up 0.6 percentage points from 2008.

* Private-sector unions lost 834,000 members in 2009. Public-sector unions, in contrast, actually gained 64,000 members.

* The average worker for a state or local government earns $39.83 an hour in wages and benefits. His counterpart in the private sector earns considerably less — $27.49 an hour. Over 80 percent of state and local workers have pensions; just 50 percent of private sector workers do. These differences remain, Sherk notes, even after controlling for education, skills, and demographics. The bottom line: Taxpayers now underwrite unionized government jobs that pay considerably more — over $430 per week more — than comparable jobs in the private sector.

Collective bargaining gives government employees a strong incentive to support the highest possible level of taxation at every level of government. Here are a few recent examples of unions putting their muscle behind tax hikes at the state level:

* Arizona. The Arizona Education Association (AEA) not only successfully lobbied against repeal of a $250 million a year statewide property tax. It also helpfully identified another $2.1 billion in tax increases to forestall spending reductions.

* California. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spent $1 million on a television ad campaign pressing for higher oil, gas, and liquor taxes instead of spending reductions.

* Illinois. AFSCME Council 31 ran television and radio ads pushing for tax increases instead of spending reductions to close the state’s budget deficit.

* Maine. Maine voters approved a ballot initiative in November 2009 that would prevent government spending from growing faster than the combined rate of inflation and population growth and require the government to return excess revenues as tax rebates. The Maine Municipal Association, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, and the Maine Education Association collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign against the initiative.

* Minnesota. AFSCME Council 5 unsuccessfully lobbied state legislators to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a $1 billion tax increase in the Spring of 2009. AFSCME is now lobbying state legislators raise taxes by a cool $3.8 billion.

* Oregon. Public employee unions in Oregon provided 90 percent of the $4 million spent on behalf of two ballot initiatives to raise personal income and business taxes by $733 million. The unions want the tax increases to protect the “Cadillac” health coverage that state workers enjoy.

As the balance between private- and public-sector union membership continues to shift toward the government, this dynamic will only intensify.  


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