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2 big blows to government unions mean hope for taxpayers

June was not a good month for government labor unions.

Early in the month, they lost a big election in Wisconsin that was being watched nationally. And later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that dealt a blow for constitutional free speech rights and against unions.

Keep in mind that when we talk about labor unions today, it’s overwhelmingly about public sector unions. Among private sector workers, union membership has been on a long decline. For example, according to Unionstats.com, private sector union members came in at

15 million or 24.2 percent of private sector workers in 1973, versus 7.2 million and only 6.9 percent in 2011.

The story is basically the opposite in the public sector. In 1973, government labor union members registered 13.6 million, or 23 percent of government workers. In 2011, 20.5 million public sector union members accounted for 37 percent of government workers.

The decline of unions in the private sector has meant a more dynamic and productive workforce, and therefore, increased income and expanded opportunities for individuals willing to work smarter and harder.

In contrast, a larger union workforce in government means increased compensation for members, including wages, salaries, and all kinds of benefits, while designing workplace rules that limit productivity and create more positions to be filled by union members.

Public sector unions also are the most dominant force in politics working for big government. During good economic times, when revenues flow into government coffers, public sector unions push for higher pay and increased staff. When economic times are tough and/or when taxpayers fight the costs of runaway government, public sector unions implement a take-no-prisoners defense of government.

That led to the recall election held on June 5 in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, had the nerve to do what he promised during his 2010 campaign, i.e., push to limit public employee collective bargaining, and have government employees chip in more to cover lavish pension and health care benefits.

Government unions didn’t like this, and led the charge for Walker’s recall. And the unions made it not just a Wisconsin issue, but a national cause.

The result: Walker not only won by a larger margin – by 53 percent to 46 percent – than generally predicted in the polls, but he actually earned a larger share of the vote (53 percent), than he did when winning the governorship in 2010 (52 percent).

No matter how you slice, dice or spin it, there’s no way getting around this being a big loss for public sector unions. And it raises interesting questions. For example, is this a warning to other states with big public sector unions that taxpayers have had enough? And what about the presidential and congressional elections this November, as the Democratic Party’s largest, most organized and most well-funded backers are, without a doubt, government unions?

The government union take-no-prisoners strategy also led to a loss in the Supreme Court in Knox vs. SEIU.

In 2005, then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special election, with two ballot propositions opposed by public sector unions. If Proposition 75 had passed, it would have hit the union gravy train by changing state law regarding union fees for political activities. Since California law imposes an “agency shop,” i.e., all employees being represented by the union, nonunion employees must pay, if they do not opt out, fees for union political activity. Prop. 75 would have required that nonunion employees must opt in on such fees. That would have been a tremendous funding hurdle for unions.

Ironically, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) imposed an additional political fee to fight Prop. 75, but gave nonunion employees no opt out.

Given this blatant violation of free speech, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 against the SEIU. In Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion, joined by four others on the court, it was pointed out, “If Proposition 75 had passed, nonmembers would have been exempt from paying for the SEIU’s extensive political projects unless they affirmatively consented. Thus, the effect of the SEIU’s procedure was to force many nonmembers to subsidize a political effort designed to restrict their own rights.” The majority summed up, “This aggressive use of power by the SEIU to collect fees from nonmembers is indefensible.”

It’s also worth noting what the majority said about the general opt-out on political spending that’s been allowed by past courts. The majority noted that “requiring objecting nonmembers to opt out of paying the nonchargeable portion of union dues – as opposed to exempting them from making such payments unless they opt in – represents a remarkable boon for unions.” By approving opt-out schemes, the majority noted that “our prior decisions approach, if they do not cross, the limit of what the First Amendment can tolerate.” And later: “Our cases have tolerated a substantial impingement on First Amendment rights by allowing unions to impose an opt-out requirement to all.”

Labor unions have no special place that should allow them to infringe upon First Amendment free speech rights. The Supreme Court finally raised this important issue. Let’s hope in a future case, it directly rules on the matter.

Like I said, June was a bad month for government labor unions. But if you’re a taxpayer, June provided some hope.

— Raymond J. Keating is the chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.



  1. I think union leadership needs to evaluate how it’s been trying to help its members. It does no one any favors when you put in place contracts that create over a trillion dollars of liability (http://bit.ly/LOb0J5). You saw the lack of faith in leadership on display in the Wisconsin recall where 38% of union households voted for Walker (http://bit.ly/LXpxku). When your own members have such a lack of faith in you, it may be time to reassess goals.

  2. It’s strange how people take pleasure in the fact that public sector union membership is down to below 10%, when the reason for the decline is that all the good manufacturing have been sent to China.

  3. Unions once had a very important place in the workplace.
    They simply have become too greedy.

  4. Kathryn Kobar, And the private sector has not become greedy? You must be part of the 1% and the Wall Street casino that has destroyed our nation, the middle class and turned America upside-down — while none have been indicted or served prison time. Shameful. 6-figure pensions for public servants is unconscionable. Billions for the 1% off the backs of American workers and middle class is also unconscionable. Arizona’s two-class society resembles a Third-world country. Shameful.

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