Magazine | April 6, 2015, Issue

The House of Labor Divided

Private- and public-sector unions are increasingly at odds

According to liberals, the fortunes of working-class Americans have declined with the ebb of organized labor since the 1970s. But their story overlooks how the rise of public-employee unions has transformed the labor movement. It also ignores how conflict between public-sector and private-sector unions is a barrier to the revival of organized labor.

Many of us think of union members as burly white-ethnic guys in steel-toed boots and hard hats and with dirt under their nails. We think of union members as being skilled tradesmen (carpenters, plumbers, or electricians) or industrial workers (coal miners, autoworkers, or steelworkers). But that image is an anachronism. Today, a union member is as likely to be a middle-aged female schoolteacher with a master’s degree and an income of $80,000 a year.

At its high point in the 1950s and 1960s, the labor movement was primarily made up of urban-dwelling white men who had high-school degrees and worked blue-collar jobs. Today, organized labor has achieved near gender parity and it includes a more racially diverse group of white-collar workers, many of whom live in the suburbs, have college degrees, and enjoy a degree of material affluence. By comparison, in 1983, only 20 percent of union members had a four-year college degree. By 2008, 38 percent did.

Two forces have driven this demographic transformation: the rise of public-employee unions and the decline of private-sector union membership. Prior to the 1960s, public employees were less than 10 percent of all union members. But with the passage of collective-bargaining laws in many states between 1959 and 1984, public-employee-union membership shot up to about 35 percent of all state and local workers by 1983, where it has remained ever since. This trajectory was very different from that of private-sector unions, whose members declined from 33 percent of the non-agricultural work force in 1955 to just 6.7 percent today. In 2009, for the first time, public employees became a majority of all union members.

These divergent trajectories led unions to slowly give up their historic title as champions of the working class. According to political scientists Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, as the percentage of public-sector union members in the work force increased between 1971 and 2004, the fraction of union members in the top third of the nation’s income distribution increased by 24 percent, and the proportion of unionists in the bottom third of the distribution declined by 45 percent.

Another unexpected effect of public-sector unionization has been to undermine union solidarity by creating conflict with private-sector unions. To the extent that unions representing government workers have won better pay, benefits, and work rules for their members, they have imposed new costs on local taxpayers. Increasing the costs of government has created an unhealthy amount of fiscal stress in states and cities around the country. Detroit’s bankruptcy was the canary in the coal mine, but other cities and states are struggling under the weight of the deferred compensation (pension and health care) they owe public employees.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pointed out, Chicago could double its property taxes and it would still not be able to afford its pension obligations under current law. Pension costs in Los Angeles have risen from 3 percent of the city’s budget in 2000 to 20 percent today. In New York City, retirement benefits for city workers constituted 15 percent of the city budget in 2002 but rose to 34 percent in 2014. In each case, public-employee unions have opposed any diminishment of their benefit packages and called for higher taxes to pay for them.

A similar course of action is increasingly untenable for private-sector unions. They realize that insofar as their members depend on a healthy business climate for their jobs, they cannot continue to back policies, such as ever-higher taxes, that discourage people and businesses from remaining or moving into in their jurisdictions. What business would want to relocate to Chicago under the shadow of major property-tax hikes? Why would citizens want to pay higher taxes to fund retirement packages rather than current services?

Consequently, private-sector unions increasingly support politicians and public policies that are anathema to public-sector unions. In Chicago, the construction unions have lined up behind Mayor Emanuel, while the American Federation of Teachers pledged $1 million to defeat him. In New Jersey, Democratic state senator Stephen Sweeney, who is also the leader of an ironworkers’ union, has argued that public workers should take a pay cut to stave off tax hikes. In neighboring New York, a number of private-sector unions have joined a coalition to back Governor Cuomo in his battles with public-sector unions. “We’re advocating for a fiscally sane economy in New York,” said the head of the Building and Construction Trades Council, Gary LaBarbera, because “without a fiscally sound environment, we will not be able to attract new businesses to the city.” Similar dynamics played out in Rhode Island’s most recent Democratic gubernatorial primary: Private-sector unions sided with Gina Raimondo, the state treasurer and the engineer of a major pension overhaul, while public-sector unions backed her opponents.

In some cases, private-sector unions have even tacitly or explicitly endorsed Republicans. In New Jersey, a dozen private unions in the building trades endorsed Republican Chris Christie for governor, while public unions backed his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono. Private-sector unions backed the pro-growth agenda of Governor John Kasich in Ohio, while public-sector unions were still angry with him for trying to roll back their collective-bargaining rights during his first term. Even Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, public-employee unions’ nemesis, managed to secure some private-union support in 2014.

The house of labor is divided. Private-sector unions are rethinking their alliance with public-sector unions that consistently support higher taxes, policies that slow growth, and more generous retirement benefits. And that is in addition to the hard facts that the decline of manufacturing jobs and the rise of the hard-to-organize service sector make a revival of private-sector unions improbable. One of organized labor’s longtime advantages was that it presented a unified political front. Today, it no longer does.

Liberal expectations that labor unions will reduce inequality and improve the prospects of workers with low levels of education and few skills are fanciful, because a labor movement dominated by public employees no longer represents such workers. For better or worse, your father’s labor union isn’t coming back.

– Mr. DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York–CUNY and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences.

Daniel DiSalvo Daniel DiSalvo is an associate professor of political science in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York–CUNY and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Obama at Selma

President Barack Obama’s speech in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” voting-rights march drew glowing reviews, with some commentators hailing it as the greatest speech of ...
Politics & Policy

Hillary Rules

A recent New York Times report that Hillary Clinton skirted federal-records laws as secretary of state by exclusively using a private e-mail system to conduct official business set off a ...
Politics & Policy

Modern Pollster

A few days before Eric Cantor lost his Virginia congressional district’s GOP nomination last year, his campaign touted the finding of an internal poll. It showed Cantor, the majority leader ...


Politics & Policy

Is the Party Over?

Following a night of drunken revelry, Homer reports, Elpenor — one of Odysseus’s unhappy and rapidly dwindling band of brothers — climbs atop the roof of the house where they ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Not-So-Grand Bargain

Many Americans today would like to move beyond the abortion wars. Most of the time, this hopeful suggestion is made either by political liberals (who are frustrated by the pro-life ...
Politics & Policy

Elite Convergence

Conservatives thinking about class and economic inequality will be attracted to Joel Kotkin’s latest book. There’s much to like in it, especially its description of how the leading elements of ...
Politics & Policy

Funky Founder

The hottest ticket in New York right now is a musical at the Public Theater, the downtown off-Broadway venue. The star and creator is Lin-Manuel Miranda, a 35-year-old Nuyorican composer ...


Politics & Policy


Consider the Freight Train I am flabbergasted by Kevin A. Hassett’s piece “Off the Rails” (March 9), which includes the statement “Even the worst rail systems in Europe are superior to ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ All our missing voters seem to have turned up in Israel. ‐ The general election in Israel was a triumph for Benjamin Netanyahu. His opponents had overtaken him in the ...

From IT

Herewith a selection of e-mails from the low-level techs who administered, written to its primary user. August 9, 2009 Hey, Jeremy here. Okay I got up and running for ...
The Long View


To: From: Subj: DO NOT REPLY TO THIS EMAIL Thank you for contacting customer support. We have received your message and are reviewing it. We will contact you within 72 hours ...
Politics & Policy


CLASSICS Classics pile up on your desk — like unopened mail From the old man’s bank, not blank checks For endless free interpretation, But a mounting high inheritance tax, Assessing and possessing your imagination With truth, ...

Most Popular

PC Culture

Hate-Crime Hoaxes Reflect America’s Sickness

On January 29, tabloid news site TMZ broke the shocking story that Jussie Smollett, a gay black entertainer and progressive activist, had been viciously attacked in Chicago. Two racist white men had fractured his rib, poured bleach on him, and tied a noose around his neck. As they were leaving, they shouted ... Read More

White Progressives Are Polarizing America

To understand how far left (and how quickly) the Democratic party has moved, let’s cycle back a very short 20 years. If 1998 Bill Clinton ran in the Democratic primary today, he’d be instantaneously labeled a far-right bigot. His support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Strange Paradoxes of Our Age

Modern prophets often say one thing and do another. Worse, they often advocate in the abstract as a way of justifying their doing the opposite in the concrete. The result is that contemporary culture abounds with the inexplicable — mostly because modern progressivism makes all sorts of race, class, and ... Read More
PC Culture

Fake Newspeople

This week, the story of the Jussie Smollett hoax gripped the national media. The story, for those who missed it, went something like this: The Empire actor, who is both black and gay, stated that on a freezing January night in Chicago, in the middle of the polar vortex, he went to a local Subway store to buy a ... Read More

One Last Grift for Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, the antique Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, is not quite ready to retire to his lakeside dacha and so once again is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong with an agenda about which he cannot be quite entirely ... Read More
Film & TV

A Sublime Christian Masterpiece of a Film

‘There are two ways through life -- the way of nature and the way of grace,” remarks the saintly mother at the outset of The Tree of Life, one of the most awe-inspiring films of the 21st century. She continues: Grace doesn’t try please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults ... Read More
PC Culture

Changing Reality with Words

The reinvention of vocabulary can often be more effective than any social protest movement. Malarial swamps can become healthy “wetlands.” Fetid “dumps” are often rebranded as green “landfills.” Global warming was once a worry about too much heat. It implied that man-made carbon emissions had so ... Read More