Creatures of the State

Government Employee Unions Gain, Private-Sector Unions Lose

The American labor movement reached what may prove to be a critical milestone last year when government employees, for the first time ever, made up a majority of union members. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a little more than 7.9 million government employees across the country were union members. Government employees now make up 51.4 percent of union membership, a sharp increase over the 48.7 percent of union members who were employed by government in 2008. The public-sector “takeover” of the union ranks is part of a long trend in which unionism has become more and more a feature of government. In 1983, the first year reliable numbers are available, only 27.9 percent of union members were in the public sector.

That shift from private-sector to government union membership has been slower in Michigan but is affecting unions here. According to Georgia State University Professor Barry Hirsch and the Union Membership and Coverage Database, government employees made of 30.2 percent of union membership in 1983 in Michigan, compared to 39.4 percent in 2008. That figure jumped last year, with nearly 315,000 government employees out of a total union membership of 710,000 throughout the state. Public-sector workers now make up 44.3 percent of Michigan’s union membership.

The shift among unions, from being primarily a movement of private-sector workers to being one of government workers has important implications. The traditional union movement was an economic movement that sought to redirect wealth towards its members through collective bargaining. Certainly it had political interests as well, and it had an ambivalent attitude at best towards capitalism, but it was economically literate and viewed economic growth as a positive. The new government union movement, however, is more ideological, its goals are primarily political, and it dismisses the value of economic growth.

As one-time SEIU organizer and academic Paul Johnston puts it, government employee unions have become “the quintessential ‘state-making’ social movement, one that 'enacts' the changes it desires. This stands in stark contrast to the traditional union movement that bargains and (in extreme cases) goes on strike for them." (For more details, check out the section on government union ideology in our report on Michigan public-sector labor law here.)

As unions continue to decline in the private sector, government employee unions are either holding steady or growing. Based on Hirsch’s numbers, between 2008 and 2009 private-sector unions in Michigan lost 70,000 members, while government unions added 11,000 members. The transformation of unions into creatures of government is very likely to continue.