Pennsylvania Union Membership 2014: What is it Telling Us?

Pennsylvania’s overall union membership as a percentage of employment held steady at 12.7 percent in 2014, unchanged from 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  While total employment rose by 27,700, union membership rose 1,900. Nationally, the percentage of employees who are union members dipped from 11.3 to 11.1 from 2013 to 2014.


All the net additional union members in Pennsylvania were due to a 2,300 rise in private sector membership and a small offsetting decline in public sector union members.  Interestingly, the percentage of unionization in the private sector fell slightly from 7.8 to 7.7 as total employment gained 55,400 over 2013. Meantime, the percentage unionization in the public sector jumped from 50.5 to 52.7 as employment dropped by 27,700.


Pennsylvania’s 12.7 percent overall union membership figure for 2013 and 2014 represents the lowest combined public and private number since these statistics have been assembled beginning in 1983[1]. In that year, Pennsylvania’s total unionization of employees stood at 27.5 percent, 51.4 percent public and 23.2 percent private.  Total union membership in 1983 stood at 1,195,700 with private sector members accounting for 855,000 of that total. By 2014, total membership was down to 702,000, a 30 year decline of just under 500,000 or 41 percent.


The count of private union members has never returned to the 1983 level despite private employment rising from 3.68 million to 4.91 million over the 31 year period. Note that the 2014 reading of 379,000 private union members is just a notch above the lowest level of the last three decades set in 2012 at 375,400.


Nationally, private sector union membership fell slightly to 6.6 percent, a full point below Pennsylvania’s 7.7 percent.


Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s public sector membership has fluctuated around 50 percent over the three decades with the percent unionized touching a low point of 46.4 percent in 1985 and hitting a high of 56.9 percent in 2001. Job counts in the public sector have also fluctuated widely over the period around a long term average of about 650,000 with the largest count posted in 2005 at 721,300 jobs. The lowest number of public jobs since 1983 was recorded in 2014 at 613,000, down by over 100,000 from nine years earlier. Public union membership reached its highest total in 2001 at 389,300 but currently stands well below that at 323,000.


By comparison, the national membership rate for all public employees was 35.7 percent in 2014, a third lower than Pennsylvania’s 52.7 percent. Based on national rates of membership for Federal, state and local employees and the public sector total, it can be reasonably assumed that Pennsylvania’s state and local rates of unionization are much higher than the national average for those two government groupings.  Nationally, in 2014 Federal union membership was 27.5 percent, state was 29.8 percent, and local 41.9 was percent (Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release, January 23, 2015).  These figures suggest that in Pennsylvania either the state or local government union membership percentage must be well above 50 percent, most likely the local government sector that includes the heavily unionized schools.


In 2012, Pennsylvania’s private sector union membership was barely higher than public membership at 375,000 compared to 356,000, despite the fact that there were almost seven and a half times more private employees than pubic employees.  The sharp fall in public employment in the last two years has led to a decline in the number of public union members although the percentage of those employees in unions has stayed above 50 percent.  Note that in 2014, private membership of 379,000 stood 56,000 above the public union member count. But that is a far cry from the 515,000 gap by which private sector union members exceeded public union membership in 1983.


Union membership is tracked in two private sector industries at the state level, construction and manufacturing.  The long term Pennsylvania story for these sectors is similar to that of the overall private sector but with some differences. It is noteworthy that Pennsylvania’s union membership rate for both manufacturing and construction are on the order of a third higher than the rate for those sectors in the country as a whole.


Incredibly, the fact that only 19 percent of construction workers are union members means that 80 percent of the state’s construction workers are essentially unable to take part in most publicly funded projects because of Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage law.


In light of the enormous decline in Pennsylvania’s total union membership over the three decades (almost 500,000 members) it might have been assumed that the political power of unions would have declined along with their ability to block or promote legislation. But two factors must be borne in mind. One, the bulk of the drop in union membership has been in the private sector while public membership has held reasonably strong.  Two, a large share of retirees in the state were union members who are likely to maintain loyalty to union political philosophy. For instance, the Port Authority in Pittsburgh has as many or more retired union members as active employees. Then too, the state employee retirement system has more retirees than active employees and the state’s education retirement system has nearly as many retirees as active members.  A conservative assumption would be that between 50 and 55 percent of public retirees were union members when they worked.


Then too, a large fraction of local government (including authorities) and state government employees and retirees who are not, or who were not, in a union are likely to be biased in favor of policies that promote increasing the size and scope of government and protecting the powers given to public sector unions.


Combined these groups (and their families) make up a formidable bloc of voters.  And, it is well known that unions such as SEIU, who represent private sector employees, are very active politically as well.  And given that almost no legislation that would make substantial changes to the privileges enjoyed by both private and public sector unions ever gets very far in Harrisburg, it is obvious that solidarity among private and public unions is quite strong.


No significant pension reform, no meaningful modification of the prevailing wage laws, no reform of the binding arbitration law, no eliminating the right of teachers or transit workers to strike, no liquor store privatization, resistance to school choice vouchers, and scant discussion of outsourcing or privatization. The list is long and the only common denominator is that a union, either public or private, would be impacted in ways that would reduce their power and privileges. These special privileges, granted when Pennsylvania had a very large and robust industrial base, need to be re-thought.  It is not reasonable to think that Marcellus Shale-type finds will come along to prop up the economy every time the state needs another shot in the arm. The state should not be content with its below national growth forever.


Late breaking news: Wisconsin appears poised to pass right-to-work legislation.  Too bad right-to-work in Pennsylvania has not even a glimmer of chance now or in the near future. And, given the track record of many failed efforts to pass it in years gone by, seems unlikely to ever happen.

[1] Historical Data Compiled and Provided by the Public Service Research Foundation

Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Union Power Run Amok

In a scenario remarkably similar to those played out all too frequently in Pennsylvania schools and transit agencies, strikes and threat of strikes are being used in Chicago to boost public employee pay, benefits and working conditions. Teachers walked off the job this morning making good their threat of two weeks ago.

Like a bad relationship, this is a gift that keeps on giving. The right of teachers to strike in Illinois, one of the three leading states for teacher strikes and one only a handful that still permit strikes, should be a wakeup call for taxpayers around the country. Demands of public sector unions are the primary force in the rapidly growing number of state and local governments facing financial chaos.

Chicago teachers already earn far more than the average Chicago household, $71,000 to $47,000, and receive substantially more benefits. Yet they are demanding a 30 percent pay increase over the next four years in addition to job security guarantees. All this against a backdrop of a school district facing nearly a billion dollar deficit by the need of the school year. Where will the money come from? State taxpayers that just recently saw a huge increase in their income tax rate? Local property taxes? This in a state with horrendous financial problems of its own.

What’s even more deplorable is the abominable academic performance in the public schools in Chicago where only 15 percent of fourth graders are reading at fourth grade level and only 56 percent of students ever graduate. It is little wonder that 50,000 of the City’s 400,000 students are enrolled in charter schools-where there is no strike and students are going to school.

The taxpayers are almost certain losers in this episode, the way they always are in Pennsylvania public sector work stoppages. The shame is that people with the power to shut down vital public services have learned that enough is never enough. And experience tells them the taxpayers, the students and the parents of students can just shut up and take it. And they will take it until they grow a backbone strong enough to vote out the legislators who insist on protecting public sector unions.

Given the Mayor’s strained relationship with the union and his opposition to the demands of the teachers, it will be interesting to see how the President reacts and which side he will support. Will it be loyalty to his former chief of staff or go where the votes are-the teachers unions as representative of his most formidable voting bloc?

Time to Eliminate Forced Collection of Public Union Dues

Governor Walker’s resounding victory over what can only be described as political ugliness on parade taught us that unions are not all powerful and can be corralled into reasonable confines. Wisconsin’s Act 10 of 2011 that precipitated calls for removing the Governor went a long way toward stripping public unions of their inordinate control over state and local governments and school districts. It eliminates the right to strike, requires an affirmative vote to retain the union representative, limits contract negotiations to wages-work rules and benefits are off the table-and forbids any government agency from deducting union dues. The last reform was altered later to allow deduction if the union member gave the government employer express permission to withhold dues.

Surely, quite a laundry list of reforms. Each has a profound effect on union powers. As a package they have caused vast numbers of public employees to quit paying dues and, as a result, be dropped from union rolls. After all, with so little ability remaining to extract wealth from taxpayers, the benefit of being in a union has been greatly diminished.

Now would be a really good time for Pennsylvania lawmakers to take a page out of the Walker playbook. The place to start, given the long running inability or unwillingness to eliminate the right to strike, would be the forced collection of dues. There may never be a better opportunity to disallow any government or government entity in Pennsylvania to deduct union dues without the express written permission of the employee.

This should be a relatively easy law to write and get to the floor. Pennsylvania taxpayers deserve what Wisconsin taxpayers have, a fighting chance at the negotiating table.

Union Members Show Dislike for Dues—and Unions

Following Wisconsin’s enactment of legislation that removes the automatic check off of union dues and requires them to be voluntary on the part of unionized employees, large percentages of members have chosen not to pay the dues and have been removed from union membership rolls. According to the Wall Street Journal, membership in AFSCME, the state’s second largest public sector union, has dropped from over 60,000 in March 2011 to just over 28,000 currently.

Clearly, union members who were so demonstrative in their attacks on Governor Walker and the Republican members of the Legislature for enacting the removal of forced union dues are quite comfortable in not paying those dues.

Besides the removal of forced dues deduction from paychecks, Act 10 also requires that each bargaining unit hold a vote to retain the union as their bargaining unit. In addition, the right to strike has been taken away. Taken together these changes have stripped the unions of the ability to hold taxpayers hostage and as a result have made union membership far less economically beneficial to the employees.

Wisconsin has shown the other traditional heavily unionized states that the people and the taxpayers can stand up to the power of public unions. When will Pennsylvania politicians join this brave movement and emulate their brethren in Wisconsin and Indiana who are leading the way in restoring sanity to the balance of labor negotiating power and returning freedom to labor markets?

Seniority Rules: The Last Refuge of the Incompetent and Mediocre

Labor union devotion to the concept of seniority as the basis of determining pay, promotions, work assignment and order of layoff is little more than a means of building total allegiance of members to the unions. The problems created by the terms demanded in labor contracts that require seniority to be used in all manner of management decisions guarantees a continuing slide into mediocre performance, inefficiencies, weak productivity and higher than necessary labor compensation costs and benefits.

We see how seniority has played out in Pittsburgh schools and the Port Authority–indeed, in virtually every government operation where unions control the supply of labor. It has also worked its deleterious effects on large private corporations as well. The long list of firms that have moved operations overseas or closed up altogether is proof of the damage union demands including seniority rules have done.

The unions’ insistence on seniority is evidence of their desire to protect mediocre employees, including slackers and trouble makers. It becomes a form of tenure and a guaranteed-for-working life sinecure-as long as the employer stays in business. Union demanded primacy of seniority is proof positive that unions care not a whit for the economic wellbeing of their employers. Their focus is on getting all they can as quickly as they can even though such behavior is not in the long term best interest of more juniors members who will pay the price of union excesses by losing their jobs.

That is why private sector unions now represent only seven percent of the private sector workforce. The markets simply cannot sustain the stifled productivity and high costs fostered by unions. The public sector employers cannot go out of business for the most part and will not as long as taxpayers can be forced to pay for the labor cost excesses. But many will file bankruptcy. This is a new trend that has emerged and promises to grow stronger because of the enormous damage done to the finances of state and local governments by overly generous compensation packages.

Seniority deepens and ingrains in union members an elevated sense of entitlement that engenders bad work place behavior and causes a chasm to develop between the interest of the workers and the employers.

Public Sector Pay Study Completely Misses the Mark

A study just released jointly by the Keystone Research Center and the Economic Policy Institute (Public Versus Private Employee Costs in Pennsylvania: Comparing Apples to Apples) comparing Pennsylvania’s public employee pay to private sector job pay is a prime example of analytical speciousness and ideological bias.

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Bethel Park Schools Need the Wisconsin Treatment

After enduring a six week strike last year, the Bethel Park schools are once again facing a possible teacher walkout. Why? Because teachers want more money and continued control over work rules. If Pennsylvania would pass a law containing the provisions of Wisconsin’s Act 10 passed earlier this year, Bethel Park teachers would not be talking walk out again. Indeed, under the Wisconsin statute, not only would they be forbidden from striking, they would not be allowed to bargain for anything other than base wages. Benefits, work rules, etc., would be left to management to decide upon.

Moreover, the school district would not be permitted to withhold union dues from employees and remit them to the union bosses. And finally, the union would have to hold a recertification vote every year with a requirement that 51 percent of all bargaining units members vote in the affirmative for the union to continue as the representative of the employees.

Too bad Pennsylvania is so late to the teacher strike elimination derby. Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio have all eliminated the dreadful practice. Pennsylvania stands with Vermont as the only state in the Northeast as allowing strikes. None of its neighboring states allow strikes. So why is it that Pennsylvania’s legislators cannot get this albatross off the backs of children and taxpayers?

Bethel Park would certainly benefit from a dose of Wisconsin treatment of union abuse of taxpayers and the public.

Wisconsin Reins in Government Worker Unions

Back in the wintry days of February, the nation’s attention was focused intensely on the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. Thousands of boisterous protestors took over the public areas of the building in a massive effort to stop one of the most far reaching pieces of legislation the state, or any state, had seen in quite some time. Democrat Senators fled the state in order to forestall a vote on the bill.  But in the end the portions of the bill dealing with public sector unions were voted on and passed on March 11.


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Newbies Beware!

Two news stories this morning go a long way to illustrating the heavy-handed public sector union attitude on how seniority trumps all when it comes to job cuts and job assignments.

At the Pittsburgh Public Schools budgetary constraints have led the administration to shutter the new teacher academy. In its application for funding to the Gates Foundation the District heralded the academy as a critical factor in its approach to instruction. "We believe that the Academy, with its emphasis on hands-on, applied learning will make a dramatic difference in the way in which we bring new teachers into the system".

While the Pittsburgh teachers’ union stated the decision to close the academy was a decision by the administration, the handwriting on the wall was clear: "…the collective bargaining agreement…would not allow new teachers to work while more senior teachers were furloughed." The proposal made it clear several times throughout that the union would have the final say on contractual matters. That makes the praise heaped upon the District and the union by a think tank quite misplaced.

Now to the meter readers, represented by another union and under a separate collective bargaining agreement with the Public Parking Authority. Even before higher rates and longer hours of enforcement went into effect the moaning and groaning over the right to select shifts began. The accusation leveled by the union is that newer part-time workers are getting daylight shifts and the more senior employees are getting evening hours. The implication is that Authority management is taking factors like absenteeism and ticket counts into their decision-making criteria.

Unions Don’t Have Much Confidence in Their Members

We have had a ringside seat in Wisconsin for the past few weeks of the unpleasant aspects of militant unionism. The nation has watched people disrespect public property, hurl physical threats against legislators they disagree with, illegally enter into the Capitol, support Senators who flee the state rather than honor their responsibilities, and carry Obama defying signs that could be interpreted as inciting violence. Of course the President has apparently forgotten his Tucson speech in which he asked for a more civil tone. Not a word was forthcoming about the hate and intemperance spewed daily in Madison.

But the real underlying story that is not being talked about is what the unions’ opposition to Wisconsin’s new public sector labor law says about the unions’ fear of their members. Union claims that Governor Walker is destroying collective bargaining rights are a smoke screen to hide what they are actually afraid of, namely, that the new law forces unions to be re-certified by membership annually by a vote of 51 percent of eligible voters and the government will no longer deduct union dues from worker paychecks and remit the money to the unions.

If union leaders and hard core members are confident of the support and allegiance of a large majority of members as they purport to be, why are they worried about re-certification and why are they worried about members not freely paying dues on a timely basis? These changes to the law should make no difference at all if most are dedicated to the unions. But that is the point; many unions have lost re-certification elections in recent years. That has led to the need to have the Obama administration use blatantly pro-union tactics and rulings to maintain private union power have to be worrying labor leaders.

With steadily shrinking private sector union participation, the public sector unions are where the movement will have to be saved. And they fully understand that. As a result, they undoubtedly view what is happening in Wisconsin and Ohio as a mortal threat to the labor movement. Thus, the tactics they employ are and will reflect the perceived threat to their existence.