The government employees who now make up a majority of the nation’s union members are a far cry from the blue-collar archetype of old, according to a new report.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute will release a report on Tuesday morning documenting the changing nature of unionism in America, as white-collar professionals in the public sector overtake the private sector working class as the face of unionism.
"Public sector unions may claim they stand up for the little guy, but generally they aren’t representing blue collar workers against a better-educated, white-collar management," said Carrie Sheffield, a scholar at the institute, in a release. "Government unions represent skilled, white-collar workers who enjoy big benefits and job security, courtesy of the taxpayer."
Government workers are more likely to work behind a desk and enjoy civil service protections than the manufacturing workers who stood at the forefront of the labor movement at the start of the 20th century, according to the report. A majority of them have college educations.
"A larger share of public sector than private sector workers are employed in "management, professional, and related occupations." In 2013, 56.2 percent of public sector workers and 37.8 percent of private sector workers were employed in these occupations," the report says. "As the percentage of public sector union members increased between 1971 and 2004, the fraction of union members in the top third of the nation’s income distribution increased by 24 percent, while the proportion of unionists in the bottom third of the distribution declined by 45 percent. This is because better-educated and more affluent workers are more likely to belong to public rather than private sector unions."
Sheffield said that these paychecks and costs have grown rapidly—retired New York City cops, the report notes, now outnumber active duty ones—in recent years and have the effect of pitting taxpayers, including the working class, against well-paid civil servants.
Pension debt and other unfunded compensation for government workers have led to several major municipal bankruptcies. Detroit, for example, declared bankruptcy when it was unable to meet nearly $20 billion in debt, about half of which was attributed to worker retirement benefits.
"Unfortunately for taxpayers, government unions donate huge amounts to elected officials who then vote on those expanding benefit packages—much to the detriment of cities like Detroit and Stockton, California, and states like Illinois and New Jersey that are on the brink of fiscal insolvency," Sheffield said in a release.
The shift has created incentives to grow government and spur political involvement from public servants. The current system allows government unions to pump millions of dollars to candidates, who become the agents that the unions negotiate with at the bargaining table.
Sheffield recounts how early private sector union boosters were skeptical of government unions. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a champion of organized labor, once said that "Collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service."
The institute says that lawmakers should enact reforms akin to that of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin to return to the balance outlined by Roosevelt. Walker was able to become the first sitting governor to survive a recall vote by highlighting the high costs associated with union-negotiated benefits and its effect on his state’s working class. Sheffield said that lawmakers should do the same.
"Government unions are a powerful interest group that is uniquely privileged in being funded by taxpayers. Their members generally have higher levels of education than the average private sector worker, and enjoy greater compensation and job security. David taking on Goliath they are certainly not," the report says.