December 26, 2005

The Unions' Dilemma--and Ours

Once upon a time, unions fought against Big Business to stop abuses against workers, improve working conditions, and gain a larger share of business profits (in the form of higher wages and benefits) for the laborers that produced them.

Times have changed.

With private-sector union membership declining drastically, overall union membership is increasingly driven by public-employee unions. In 1953, the peak year for private-sector union participation, there were over 15 million union workers in the private sector, and less than 800 thousand union workers in the public sector. Today, with overall union participation rates at their lowest levels since World War II, the number of private-sector and public-sector union members is roughly even, at a bit over 8 million each. Unions have largely abandoned private-sector organizing [PDF] in favor of the dedicated base of public-sector employees, where the task is easier and where special-interest lobbying and politics so much more effective--and rewarding.

With private-sector unions under continuing pressure from globalization and the relentless ongoing shift away from a purely labor-based industrial American economy to a mobile and information-based world economy, the overall trend is towards an overwhelming public-sector domination by unions. More and more, unions are becoming the voice not of the American worker, but of the American bureaucratic rank-and-file. And the voices of the unions are increasingly aimed at guaranteeing that these bureaucracies enjoys wages and benefits far above and beyond those received by the people who pay for the public sector, a problem that is only likely to get worse.

More and more, the idea that unions are representing the "little guy" against Big Business is becoming a hollow joke. More and more, "union" means representing government employees directly against the government, and indirectly against the taxpayers. We saw this illustrated very well last week in the New York transit strike.

At what point will the unions and their lobbyists become the government, for most practical purposes and at all levels? And with unions more and more representing employees in areas exempt from any meaningful competition or market discipline, how long before it's the unions versus everyone else?