Observers of union trends point to the public sectorwhich
employed 16 percent of the national workforce in 2000as evidence
that favorable laws and lack of management opposition can contribute
to markedly higher union participation. Union density is over four
times higher in the public sector than the private, 37.5 percent
vs. 9 percent in 2000, and public sector density has increased by
5 percent since 1985, while private sector density has decreased
nearly 40 percent.
"I would say, crudely, that the public sector represents the free
choice of workers, because there really is no management opposition,"
said Harvard University economist Richard Freeman. Without the intense
competitive pressures facing private firms, public sector management
has less need to oppose unionization.
Indeed, public sector unions can, in effect, shift the demand
curve for their labor outward by influencing the political process:
Think of teachers lobbying for increased education budgets. So in
the public sector, management and unions often become allies in
seeking public revenues. Something similar happens in the private
sector when unions help in sales campaigns (for example, the Garment
Workers' "Look for the Union Label"), but such efforts are relatively
In three Ninth District states, (Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin)
over half of public employees are union members, while in Montana,
one-third are unionized. Wisconsin's 55 percent public sector unionization
rate is among the highest in the nation, and Kevin Trass, Wisconsin
spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees (AFSCME), attributes his union's 60,000 members to "hard
work" and "a pretty strong collective bargaining law for public
In South Dakota, fewer than one in five public employees belong
to a union and in North Dakota, just 16 percent belong. "The problem
in the public sector in North Dakota is there's no collective bargaining,"
said Chris Runge, executive director of the North Dakota Public
Employees Association. "So that leaves us with collective begging."
Legislators in North Dakota oppose collective bargaining for public
employees in order to assert their authority over the budgetary
process. "They fear they'll lose control," Runge said, "but that's
so far from the truth. It works just fine in 29 states; their governments
haven't ground to a halt."
Still, critics can reasonably argue that public unions have too
much influence over the political process, and may create inefficiencies
in tax expenditures because they're not subject to the same invisible
hand that exists in the marketplace. Taxpayer pressure can provide
only a moderate degree of check-and-balance.
The argument is impossible to evaluate, however, without clear
standards to measure public sector output and obvious means of gauging
demand for that output. As Freeman writes, "the problem of evaluating
whether the average citizen would be better or worse off in the
absence of public sector unions lobbying for public goods is sufficiently
complex to leave one agnostic."