Government Unions up, Private Sector Unions down but not out

The Wall Street Journal explains the significance of the crucial shift in union membership that reached a tipping point last week: More union members now work for government entities than for private businesses. (I discussed this development last week.) The Journal editorial states:

Unions once saw their main task as negotiating a bigger share of an individual firm’s profits. Now the movement’s main goal is securing a larger share of the overall private economy’s wealth, which means pitting government employees against middle-class taxpayers.

And as union membership has grown in government, so has union clout in pushing politicians (especially but not solely Democrats) for higher wages and benefits. This is why labor chiefs Andy Stern (SEIU) and Rich Trumka (AFL-CIO) could order Democrats to exempt unions from ObamaCare’s tax increase on high-cost health insurance plans. To the extent Democrats have become the party of government, they have become ever more beholden to public unions.

The problem for democracy is that this creates a self-reinforcing cycle of higher spending and taxes. The unions help elect politicians, who repay the unions with more pay and benefits and dues-paying members, who in turn help to re-elect those politicians.

Indeed, today public sector unions constitute a permanent, organized, well-funded lobby for bigger government. However, that doesn’t mean that organized labor is giving up unionizing private sector workers.

In fact, private sector decline is a major motivation for unions to push as hard as they can for changes in labor law that would favor unionization — most notably the misleadingly named Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which, in its current form, would effectively eliminate the secret ballot in organizing elections, enjoin a federally appointed arbitrator to impose a contract upon a newly unionized company if the union and the employer cannot reach an agreement after 120 days, and increase employer penalties for unfair labor practices, which can arise from resisting unionization.

The current version of EFCA is in political trouble, due largely to the overwhelming unpopularity of its card-check provision, which would allow unions to bypass secret ballot elections by having employees sign union cards. The cards are signed in public, thus exposing workers to high-pressure tactics, which secret ballots are intended to avoid.

But EFCA is far from dead. Union-friendly Democrats in Congress could try to pass EFCA in parts, either by inserting its different provisions in other bills or by introducing those provisions as stand-alone bills. EFCA’s binding arbitration and increased employer penalty provisions haven’t received as much public attention as its card-check provision, which makes this stealth strategy attractive for EFCA supporters. EFCA-minus-card-check is something to watch for and guard against.

For EFCA supporters, this piecemeal EFCA strategy becomes even more attractive with the possibility that they could get either card check or some other legal mechanism to favor unionization through non-legislative means. The most obvious vehicle for this is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Big Labor is going after the NLRB, with help from the Obama administration. Current NLRB nominee Craig Becker, a former SEIU associate general counsel, has said that employers should be cut out of the organizing process. (His nomination is on hold in the Senate.)

Meanwhile, as unions’ share of the public sector workforce continues to grow, so will those public employees’ union dues. Greater revenue from dues allows unions to increase their support for Democratic politicians, thus puting greater pressure on them to move further to the left — both by working to increase the size of government, where unions’ greatest prospects for growth lie, and by seeking to change the law to facilitate unionization in the private sector as well.

For more on public sector unions, see here and here.