Union membership as a share of the labor force is at its lowest level in decades. Only 11.9% of all U.S. employees in 2010 belonged to a labor organization. Yet as the unfolding drama in Wisconsin this year has revealed, unions are far from irrelevant. Indeed, public-sector employees have emerged as one of the most powerful forces in the nation’s economic and political life, driving many states and localities to severe fiscal distress. Their close alliance with the Democratic Party has accelerated this trend.
The main reason for this state of affairs is that government employee unions, like their counterparts in the private sector, function as monopolies. They enjoy exemptions and affirmative grants of permission under federal and state law unavailable to nonunion workers. Union leaders and employees view nonmembers, who offer their services more cheaply, as their natural adversary. As such, they will use all means possible to maintain their bargaining advantage.
A large body of empirical evidence indicates that while monopoly arrangements benefit unions, they do not benefit the economy as a whole. Indeed, they undermine it by lowering productivity, making less capital investment available, and hindering worker mobility. The recognition of these and other effects by employers and workers primarily explains the decades-long decline in private-sector membership. In the public sector, where service provision already is typically a monopoly, government agencies can’t adapt as easily.
While individual workers should retain their right to organize or join a union, they should not have the right to use the law or extra-legal persuasion to coerce other workers into becoming members. Volunteerism remains the best check against the economic collectivization aggressively favored by so many union leaders and their political allies.