Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt. How did this happen? Very quietly. The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions.
Critics of public sector unions will likely use the 2010 union membership rates — released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — to add fuel to the anti-government worker fire. Total unionization rates dropped to record lows in 2010, to just 11.9 percent of the American workforce. And now, most union members (51.8 percent) are government employees, rather than private sector workers, which has been the case since 2009, when just over fifty percent of union members were government employees.
However, the public sector’s increasing share of total union membership is no “coup” as Pawlenty argues. Public sector unionization rates have remained unchanged for the last 30 years. Just under 36 percent of government workers were unionized in 1980, and 36.2 percent of them were union members in 2010. As the chart below demonstrates, the public sector’s share of total union membership is only increasing because private sector unionization rates are in major decline, shrinking from 20.1 percent of the total private sector workforce in 1980 to 6.9 percent in 2010:
And numerous studies have debunked the myth of overpaid government workers. As a 2010 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research noted:
When state and local government employees are compared to private-sector workers with similar characteristics, state and local workers actually earn 4 percent less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts.
To be clear, today’s announcement of the 2010 unionization rates is cause for real reason concern. But policy makers should be far more worried about private sector unions than those in the public sector. More than half of non-managerial workers say they would vote to join a union if they could, but current government policies make it nearly impossible for private sector workers who want to join together in a union to do so — and consequently private sector unionization rates have plummeted.
In contrast, the stability of public sector unionization rates demonstrates that when workers are able to freely choose to join together in unions, they often do so. Without major reforms to make it fairer for workers trying to form unions, we will continue to see union numbers fall.
*Sources: Union membership rates from 1980 to 2009 are from the “Union Membership and Coverage Database,” (Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, www.unionstats.com), 2010 union membership rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.