It's been a tough couple of years for public sector unions. Republican governors, notably Wisconsin's Scott Walker, have promoted laws to limit government unions' bargaining rights and make it harder to recruit members. San Diego and San Jose voters opted to cut union pensions. Not to mention looming municipal bankruptcies that stand to disproportionately threaten union members. All of this against a backdrop of layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, freezes, and the like.
For eight years, the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment has taken the opportunity of Labor Day to assess the state of labor unions nationwide. This year, we found national unionization rates at their lowest since the Great Depression. Rates in California and Los Angeles appear to be continuing the downward trend that followed the most recent recession.
Our research, along with related scholarship, explains why conservative politicians are so keen to hobble government unions, but their arguments for doing so are misplaced. Unions are unique in their power to open the American dream to large swaths of workers and their families. Moreover, at a time when bolstering worker wages and spending power would be a big help to getting the economy back on track, production workers' hourly wage, after inflation, is seven percent lower than it was in 1973.
Organized labor's critics suggest that local and state budget crises were triggered by excessive public employee pay and pensions. There are two problems with this proposition. The first is timing: budgets plunged into deficit when the 2008 recession and its lingering aftermath dragged down tax collections while boosting social service needs. In fact there was no corresponding jump in public employee costs that explains the sudden flood of red ink. Even more damning is the fact that after taking into account worker characteristics such as education and experience, employee wages and total compensation (including benefits) are lower on average for public employees than their private counterparts.
Why, then, have conservatives so intently targeted public sector unions? Our research tells us part of the answer: If you want to weaken unions, the public sector is where most of the action is. Public employees are more than five times as likely to be unionized as private ones. And though public employees earn less than workers in comparable private sector jobs, unionized workers do earn more than non-union workers, in both public and private workplaces. What's more, the union wage advantage is greater in places where unions claim a larger share of the workforce -- like Los Angeles. So, clearly, by weakening unions, conservatives in state and local governments think they can reduce costs for themselves and for the businesses that typically are key supporters.
But there is also an important political reason for conservatives to take aim at organized labor: They are one of the few forces, other than big businesses and billionaires, that can afford large contributions -- and they're mainly bankrolling Democrats. Though the spending power is not equal -- for example, business-related sources outspent unions 14 to 1 in the 2000 election cycle -- unions' ability to spend big and mobilize people has been a thorn in the side of right-leaning politicians. Even in California, where Wisconsin-style restrictions on unions would be unlikely to win public support, this November's Proposition 32 is designed to bar unions from political spending while building in loopholes that would allow corporate and wealthy donors to keep funds flowing.
It's true that unions were on the decline long before this latest salvo, falling from one-third of the workforce in the 1950s to about one-ninth today. But that's not due to unpopularity. Most Americans, in fact, give unions a positive approval rating, and most non-unionized workers say they'd like to have a union (1). It's U.S. employers who have perfected the art of the anti-union campaign, in which they ratchet up the tension, one-sided arguments and flat-out intimidation to the point where most workers will vote "no union" just to end the discord. Unfortunately decades-old U.S. labor laws do little to curb such tactics.
That's where the public sector difference comes in. It's easier for employers to keep a union out than to dislodge one; private sector workplaces are "born" union-free (think of a new hotel), whereas many government establishments come into being with a union contract in place (think of a new school). Private employers' actions are largely hidden from the outside world and insulated from political pressure, whereas public employers must contend with the glare of public scrutiny and the heat of political mobilization, limiting hardball tactics.
Critics of public sector unions do get one thing right: while public employees on average earn less, those at the low end of the job scale do average more than private sector peers. But that's because unions give a bigger wage bump to those who earn less -- women, young people, people of color. Economists say we've lost a decade of financial progress because of the recession. We cannot afford to let progress toward our American values, including equality, similarly retreat.
(1) Freeman, Richard B. 2007. America Works: Critical Thoughts on the Exceptional U.S. Labor Market. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Figure 5.1.
Chris Tilly is director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, which will publish State of the Unions 2012 on Labor Day. Julia Tomassetti is a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA.