The Union Difference
Once again–because public employee union leaders are doing their best to conflate the two–let’s re-emphasize that there’s a difference between private sector and public employee unions. Further, as Dan Yorke brought up this morning, despite proclamations made at rallies, most of the middle-class isn’t unionized (nor intends to be). Starting with the latter, while it’s true that public employee union members are in the middle-class (some are even in the upper middle class), that’s different than implying that most of the middle class are union members. They’re not
In 2010, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union–was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today….In 2010, 7.6 million public sector employees belonged to a union, compared with 7.1 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public sector workers (36.2 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private sector workers (6.9 percent). Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 42.3 percent. This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. Private sector industries with high unionization rates included transportation and utilities (21.8 percent), telecommunications (15.8 percent), and construction (13.1 percent).
Second, Jonah Goldberg summarizes the difference between public and private unions:
Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It’s been said that during World War I, U.S. soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent; hazardous conditions were the norm. In 1907, the Monongah mine explosion claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners’ lives. Before unionization and many New Deal-era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.
Government unions have no such narrative on their side. Do you recall the Great DMV cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair’s famous schoolhouse sequel to “The Jungle”? No? Don’t feel bad, because no such horror stories exist.
As Goldberg explains, President Kennedy saw political opportunity in allowing government workers to unionize so he proclaimed that they could via Executive Order. We know that even Franklin Roosevelt didn’t think public employee unionization was a good idea. Neither, as Goldberg writes, did George Meany (the first AFL-CIO leader), who said that it is “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” Because there is a huge difference in what goes on at the bargaining table between a private union/employer and a public union/government bureaucrat. Goldberg again:
Private-sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with friendly politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests, and, as we’ve seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government.
That’s the fundamental difference and that’s why–despite my personal experience–I do support private unions, but not public.
ADDENDUM: Yorke makes the cogent point that RI union members are actually doing themeselves a disservice by calling for solidarity with their Wisconsin “brothers and sisters.” For while the Wisconsin members have been dodging realistic contracts for some time now, RI unions have “come to the table” and made concessions and currently contribute to their own benefits at a level just now being approached by the Wisconsin members.