State of the unions: Not good

Brett McMahon President, Miller and Long DC
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The annual Union Members Summary—the U.S. labor unions’ own State of the Union—encourages us to assess the state of the unionized workforce. And, much like the profit margins and job-loss the rest of America has experienced, the construction union outlook proves no better.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual union membership summary measures the number of U.S. union members and the percent of the private and public industry workforce they comprise. This year’s membership decline signals big trouble for Big Labor and offers insight into why its White House and Congressional allies are going out of their way to accommodate Big Labor’s costly special interests.

The numbers identify 15.3 million America union members, 770,000 fewer than in 2008, though a majority of union members are now employed by the government. During the recession, unions accrued members in government and lost them in the private sector, a shift Heritage Foundation labor policy expert James Sherk says can be felt in American politics and taxpayers’ wallets: “Representing government employees has changed the union movement’s priorities: Unions now campaign for higher taxes on Americans to fund more government spending.”

To reverse the decades-long decline in private union membership, unions have been lobbying Congress to pass the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act. Forcing this proposal through Congress would bolster union membership, addressing two major concerns: dwindling presence and depleting pension funds. EFCA takes away workers’ ability to vote for or against a union by secret ballot, instead making them publicly sign a card and exposing them to intimidation and harassment from organizers. EFCA also introduces a government arbitrator with authority to set wages and benefits for unionized workplaces, binding for two years. Having failed to move out of committee last year, I predict EFCA will see new life in a different but equally offensive form, especially since the Senate doesn’t have the 60 votes needed to pass the original version.

The BLS data also reports that, from 2008-2009, union membership in U.S. private construction fell from 15.6 to 14.5 percent. Just 958,000 workers in U.S. private construction now belong to a union, compared to 1.195 million in 2008. Construction-union membership is at its lowest since 1995, when 908,000 union workers composed over 17 percent of the private construction workforce.

But the construction unions aren’t without a plan to reverse this decline. On lucrative government contracts, project labor agreements (PLAs) give union contractors a landslide advantage over competing non-union companies like mine. So, it’s no coincidence that last February, President Obama signed an order encouraging their requirement on federal construction projects over $25 million. Executive Order 13502 will dramatically stifle competition for taxpayer-funded projects. Big Labor won’t benefit from this handout until the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council issues final rules to implement the order into federal procurement code. But with low membership making the case for a Big Labor bailout, expect to see union allies lobbying for its immediate implementation.

Two more handouts union friends have championed are pro-Labor provisions in the health care reform bill: Big Labor’s exemption from the Cadillac plan penalty—a deal now sweetened by delayed implementation and raised cost thresholds—and the controversial Merkley Amendment—now absent from the president’s latest version of the bill, but attempted nonetheless.

Additions to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 383-page manager’s amendment had aimed to require construction contractors with just five full-time employees and $250,000 or more in payroll to provide employee health insurance benefits or pay a fine. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced it on behalf of his union patrons. The amendment would have treated the construction industry differently than all others. For small businesses in every other field, the exemption applied to companies with less than 50 employees: a tenfold difference. The move would have imposed astronomical costs on small construction employers who simply can’t afford to provide insurance, and heaped more job-loss on an industry already seeing 24.7 percent unemployment.

Even cutting those losses, it’s clear that, like most businesses, Big Labor isn’t without an emergency response plan. It has prepared for a time to call its favors and that time is now. Hopefully Congress and the White House won’t deliver what they’ve promised.

Brett McMahon is vice president of Miller & Long, a concrete construction subcontractor, based in Bethesda, Md., and a member of the Associated Builders and Contractors.