Public-sector growth shifts role of unions

Sean F. Driscoll

Union members have grown older and more educated in the past quarter-century — and are more likely to be women — as the strength of organized labor shifts from the manufacturing sector to government jobs.

In fact, just one in 10 union members is in manufacturing these days, a sharp decline from 1983 when the field accounted for nearly one in four unionized workers, according to a study by the Center for Economic Policy Research.

In 2008, 48 percent of union members were in public-sector jobs, and government workers were nearly five times more likely to be in a union than private-sector employees. Although unions have seen national membership erode by more than 1 million workers since 1983, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the shift to a public-sector base gives unions fertile ground for expansion.

But it stands to redefine Big Union’s role in the U.S. business community, not to mention its politics.

“The (public-sector) employment base has been growing steadily since the 1950s,” said Michael LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations. “It’s a good target (for unions). In a private sector, employers can hold captive talks that employees perceive as intimidating and hostile. Government employers simply can’t afford to use scare techniques or intimidate their workers. Employees are voters, or they can influence voters. The whole dynamic is different. It’s such a different world.”

Local unions buck trend

Rockford’s manufacturing base has shrunk by more than 20,000 jobs in the past two decades, but the area hasn’t lost as many workers from construction union rolls, said Glen Turpoff, executive director of the Northern Illinois Building Contractors Association.

“Our construction unions are largely intact, which is the story locally but certainly not nationally,” he said. “There are many areas where once-strong construction unions have withered. They haven’t gone away, but they’re not 90 or 100 percent of the jobs anymore.”

The loss of manufacturing-linked labor jobs isn’t a case of companies shifting away from union shops, but the outright elimination of jobs or plants, Turpoff said.

“As (companies) have lessened the number of people employed (in the Rock River Valley), those jobs have been union jobs and haven’t been replaced in our economy,” he said.

Still an influence?

But the forces leading to the loss of labor’s manufacturing base — including severe recessions that hit the auto, steel and rubber industries — aren’t influencing the public sector. As companies moved their jobs to less union-friendly states and offshore, said Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, dean and professor at the U of I labor school, public-sector jobs were largely immune to the shift.

“Manufacturing jobs are more susceptible to outsourcing in this country,” he said. “You can’t get the same movement on some service jobs and particularly public-sector jobs. That’s been a pressure on some traditionally unionized areas.”

And the effect of Big Union’s influence, as it shifts to a public-sector membership base, is up for debate. Tensions grew between companies and labor leaders as jobs moved away from union-friendly areas, but in the past decade several unions have helped redefine their role and their relationship with management.

“They really are seeing themselves not just focused on who’s in a defined bargaining unit, but on the broader interests of professional workers,” Cutcher-Gershenfeld said. “It’s about professional standards and making a difference as professionals.”

Adopting a new philosophy

Turpoff said local unions still represent a powerful force in local politics, but he’s seen a philosophical shift in the local labor movement.

“I think the old-line industrial and construction unions were aggressive in their positions and stances, and I’m not altogether sure the same degree of aggression is found in some of the service sector unions,” he said. “That may change the nature of the discourse here, and that may be something that needs to come.”

If labor continues to seek out professional workers as new members, the old-school approach may need to be further softened or jettisoned all together, Turpoff said.

“It’s very difficult to take someone who’s an accountant and graduated from college and all of a sudden have them faced with the possibility of going on strike. You have to approach it as a business relationship and in finding what’s in the greater interest of who we serve rather than a ‘solidarity forever’ approach.”

Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at (815) 987-1346 orsdriscoll@rrstar.com.