Where the union
movement might have once been able to present itself as an institution
dedicated to protecting members' interests in the workplace, it is becoming
more and more a political animal. Recently released federal reports filed by
several of the nation's largest unions show that private-sector unions are
losing members and dues revenue, while government employee unions are gaining
both. At the same time, unions are putting more of their dues money into
The United Auto
Workers is the most prominent example of a shrinking private-sector union. Over
the course of 2009, the UAW lost 75,000 members. That represents nearly
one-sixth of the total it had at the beginning of the year. Annual dues income
sank $38.4 million, a drop of nearly 25 percent compared to 2008.
Some union organizations have reached the point where they feel no need to pretend that their focus is on anything other than politics.
But the UAW was
hardly alone: Between 2008 and 2009, the Teamsters lost more than 38,000
members and $6 million in dues, while the Steelworkers lost nearly 80,000
members — better than 10 percent of its membership — and saw dues revenue drop
by $7 million. UNITE-HERE, the ungainly combination of garment and hotel
workers, had an especially rough year, losing more than one-third of its
members, going from almost 367,000 to just a shade over 240,000, largely thanks
to internal fighting. Dues declined precipitously as well, from $69 million in
2008 to $48.5 million in 2009. A few private-sector unions, such as the
Carpenters and Machinists, managed to maintain their revenues, but even those
two unions lost members. Overall, private-sector unions lost members amidst the
The picture was
very different for unions that specialize in representing government employees.
Between 2008 and 2009, the National Education Association added 19,000 members
and saw its dues take increase by $17.6 million; the American Federation of
State, County and Municipal Employees added 34,000 members and $13.2 million in
dues revenue; the Service Employees International Union added 50,000 members
and $24.2 million in dues; and the American Federation of Government Employees
added more than 16,000 members and $2.8 million in dues. The American
Federation of Teachers gained 33,000 members, but AFT Headquarters
paradoxically managed a decline in revenue of nearly $12 million, despite
raising monthly dues from $14.70 to $15.35 per member.
Even with the
odd report from the AFT, the pattern is clear: Private-sector unions lost
members, and government unions gained them. The steady growth of government
unions and simultaneous decline of private-sector unions has progressed to the
point where government employee union members now outnumber their union
brothers and sisters outside of government.
At the same
time, unions have put less emphasis on workplace representation and more on
political activism. In fact, two government unions have abandoned pretense and
acknowledged spending more on politics than on representation in 2008 or 2009.
Those unions are
the NEA and AFSCME, which apparently went all-in during the 2008 elections.
Most unions typically report relatively modest spending on politics (sometimes
by mischaracterizing contributions to political groups as "representation" or
as "charitable activity"), but the national NEA headquarters reported spending
$50.4 million on political and lobbying activities during the 2008-2009 school
year, while spending just $49.3 million on representing workers in the
workplace. AFSCME national headquarters was even more blatant, spending $63.3
million on politics and only $38.9 million on representation in 2008.
existed to ensure that workers had leverage to bargain for better wages and
working conditions, but for years they have been evolving into something
entirely different: political entities that contest elections and lobby
government. Most union workers are employed by government, and some union
organizations have reached the point where they feel no need to pretend that
their focus is on anything other than politics.
becoming more political in nature, and there's no reason to expect this trend
to stop. The union agenda is fairly simple; they can be relied on to react
quickly and negatively toward nearly any attempt to streamline government
services, and are quite willing to imposes higher tax burdens on the private
sector. Because government employee unions in particular draw their funds from
government under the guise of membership dues, this represents more and more
taxpayer funds being diverted into a permanent lobby for big government.
Paul Kersey is director of labor
policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission
to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and
the Center are properly cited.