Do Unions Represent The American Worker?

Lloyd Billingsley Policy Fellow, Independent Institute
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Democrats are divided over President Obama’s new Trans-Pacific trade deal, but AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka doesn’t like it at all. “This agreement is not worthy of the American people and the American worker,” Trumka recently told Gwen Ifill of the PBS NewsHour. For their part, the American people and the American worker might question Mr. Trumka’s presumption to speak for them.

A full 93.4 percent of American workers in the private sector are not union members, according to the latest figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In other words, the overwhelming majority of American workers in the private sector, nearly all of them, are not union members.

According to the BLS, only 6.6 percent of workers in the private sector are members of unions, a small minority that is getting smaller.

A full 88.9 percent of all American workers, including public employees, are not union members, according to the BLS figures for 2014. In other words, the vast majority of American workers are not union members. Only 11.1 percent of workers are union members, a small minority, and that is only part of the story.

According to the BLS the 11.1 number is down 0.2 percent from the previous year. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the overall union membership rate was 20.1 percent, a major slide from 35 percent in the mid-1950s. So the overall decline has been continuous, but not in the government sector.

There a full 35.7 percent of employees are now union members, as the BLS observes, a number “more than five times higher” than the private sector’s 6.6 percent. In local governments, according to the BLS, a full 41.9 percent of workers are members of government employee unions.

To look at it another way, even in the government sector, 64.3 percent of workers, a strong majority, are not union members. In local government, 58.1 percent of workers are not union members, another majority.

Despite these realities, the old-line establishment media persist in equating unions with “labor” or “organized labor.” Unions are a distinct minority in America, a special interest that wields disproportionate influence.

In the private sector, unions are primarily bargaining units in a competitive marketplace. Government employee unions, by contrast, are conduits for government policy. Under the Obama administration, for example, the Internal Revenue Service targeted non-profit groups that favored smaller government, lower taxes, and clean elections.

This abusive crackdown did not drive the National Treasury Employees Union to stage walkouts or hold public protests. Instead the union backed their government bosses 100 percent. Taxpayers might also note that unionized government employees seem to have trouble finding emails that politicians claim to have lost.

Taxpayers do not vote for National Treasury Employee Union bosses, and if unsatisfied with “horrible customer service,” as one IRS official put it, they cannot patronize Dave and Pat’s IRS down the street. Likewise, if citizens are unhappy with government services overall, they cannot exactly go to Betty and Don’s Government over at the mall. The private sector, by contrast, allows choice.

By the latest count, 104 people have died due to faulty ignition switches in union-built vehicles from General Motors. If consumers find that troubling, they can opt for a Honda, Kia, or Toyota, which like other products come to the American market through trade with other nations.

The vast majority of American workers, 93.4 percent in the private sector and 88.9 percent overall, are not union members. Those workers might assess the merits of trade for themselves, rather than lining up with wealthy union bosses who presume to speak for the American people and the American worker.

Lloyd Billingsley is a policy fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, City Journal California, and other publications.