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K. Lloyd Billingsley - Contributor
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

Are Unions a "Special Interest?"
special privileges...
[K. Lloyd Billingsley] 3/3/05

Union boss Miguel Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, recently said that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has "the audacity to call organizations that represent working people special interests." The latest figures on union membership cast that statement in a special light.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions represent only a scant 7.9 percent of workers in the private sector, down from a meager 8.2 percent in 2003. The 7.9 percent figure is likely high because the BLS fails to include the self-employed, a group definitely on the increase. These figures mean that a full 92.1 percent of people working in the private sector, almost all of them, are not union members.

According to the BLS, unions now represent 12.5 percent of all workers, down from 12.9 percent in 2003. In other words, 87.5 percent of all workers, the vast majority, are not in unions. This makes it a stretch to call unions "organizations that represent working people." The governor's special interests description is more accurate.

Those numbers are a long way from the 1950s, when more than 30 percent of workers were union members. Even at the peak, about two thirds of all American workers, still a strong majority, were not union members. Since then the decline has been steady and even extends to government employees.

A full 36.4 percent of government employees are unionized, a decline from 37.2 in 2003. Teaching, the task least suitable for the production-line union mentality, is now the most unionized job. A full 37.6 of public school teachers nationwide are union members, nearly the same as police and firefighters, who come in at 37.3 percent, according to the new BLS figures.

That is high but, put another way, 63.6 percent of government employees, a strong majority, are not union members. And a full 62.7 percent of teachers in government schools are not union members. But representation of a small and dwindling minority of workers has proved no bar to an impressive array of special privileges for unions.

For example, the Davis-Bacon Act, originally used against African-American workers, guarantees expensive union labor on public-works projects. Project labor agreements and prevailing-wage measures do the same thing at state and local levels.

The law allows unions to confiscate money from non-members through agency fees. The mechanisms for ensuring that non-members' money does not go for partisan politics, rather than bargaining, are awkward and inadequate. In California, unions even get taxpayers to foot the bill for their propaganda.

Over the past five years, California taxpayers have given almost $25 million to the Institute for Labor and Education (ILE), a union propaganda unit camouflaged by its association with the University of California. Last year, cash-strapped, deficit-ridden California gave the ILE $3.8 million.

Meanwhile, journalists should not equate "labor" or "working people" with union members, and neither should legislators. The question for them is whether the law should continue to retain a structure of special privileges, and even taxpayer funding, for organizations that represent well under 10 percent of private-sector workers, slightly more than 10 percent of all workers, and barely more than one third of government employees, with all categories in decline.

copyright 2005 Pacific Research Institute




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