ORGANIZED LABOR in the United States achieved a milestone in 2009 that once would have been unthinkable: for the first time, union members working in government jobs outnumbered those working in the private sector.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of unionized private employees fell last year to 7.4 million. That represented just 7.2 percent of the private-sector labor force, the lowest proportion in over a century. By contrast, union membership in the public sector topped 7.9 million, or 37.4 percent of all federal, state, and local government jobs. The share of government workers belonging to labor unions, in other words, is more than five times the unionized share of the private sector. Union membership in private industry peaked at 35.7 percent in 1953 and has dwindled ever since. In the public sector, unions surpassed that level years ago and show no sign of weakening.
There was a time when even pro-labor Democrats objected to public-sector unionism. “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the head of the National Federation of Federal Employees. In the private sector, organized employees and the employer meet across the bargaining table as (theoretical) equals. But in the public sector, said FDR, “the employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.” Allowing public-employee unions to engage in collective bargaining would mean opening the door to the manipulation of government policy by a privileged private interest.
In the late 1950s, however, the consensus against public-sector unions began to collapse. In 1958, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner Jr. issued an order allowing public employees in the city to unionize and bargain collectively. The following year, Wisconsin became the first state to enact a public-sector collective-bargaining law. On January 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, which granted bargaining rights to federal employees. Around the country, an avalanche of public-sector bargaining laws followed. “Membership in public unions rose exponentially,” writes journalist Roger Lowenstein in a recent book chronicling the explosion of pension debt in American life.