Skip to comments.Government Work (organized labor)
Posted on 09/01/2003 9:48:05 AM PDT by Isara
Unions: Now that organized labor has settled into the public sector, it's less of a counterweight to private capital and more of a thorn in the taxpayer's side.
A lot of history goes into Labor Day, along with a touch of irony. The holiday was conceived more than a century ago by workers who were fighting to organize for better wages and a better life. But the same labor movement that invented this delightful day off in the fading glow of late summer has itself been fading with one notable exception.
These days, most American workers to whom this day is dedicated have no union ties.
Earlier this year, the Labor Department reported that union membership slipped to 13.2% of all wage-and-salary workers in 2002, down from 20.1% in 1983.
The numbers for the non-government work force are even more striking. In 2002, only 8.5% of those working in the private sector were union members. This is a huge drop from the levels of labor's heyday, when unions were powerful forces in American industry.
It's a different story on the government side. There, nearly four in 10 workers are union members (37.5%, according to federal figures for 2002). Public employees are still a minority of union members overall, but they're gaining on their private sector counterparts. In 2001, the private-public split was 56-44; in 2002, it was 54-46.
The national labor leadership reflects this trend. The head of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, came from the public worker-dominated Service Employees International Union. The largest single union in the country, the National Education Association, is made up of public school teachers.
Organized labor is no longer primarily a movement of workers banding together to bargain with private capital over wages and working conditions. Now its agenda is driven by the people who used to be called civil servants. The goal is to put as much money as possible into their pockets, by traditional means (i.e., strikes) if necessary, but more often through political action.
Striking makes the public angry. It's much easier, with ample dues coming in, to spend some money and elect pliable legislatures and school boards.
This is a long way from the labor movement of Samuel Gompers or, for that matter, of George Meany.
Not so many Labor Days ago, the government was almost always the third party in labor-management disputes. It set the rules of engagement, often kicking up huge controversy in the process. But it wasn't seen as a cow to be milked.
That role came later, when labor decided that its salvation lay in government work. Of course, when tax-funded entities give in to union demands or, Gray Davis-style, sells out to unions for campaign checks the taxpayers end up paying the bills. Labor isn't as big as it was, but it is doing what it can to make government bigger.