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Government Union Membership and Political Power

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Is there a connection?

Mike Antonucci, Education Intelligence Agency, sees a relationship between a state’s political leanings and government union membership.  These figures include teachers as well as other government employees.   

Researchers Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University . . . examine the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] BLS source statistics from the Current Population Survey and disaggregate them by state, metropolitan area and occupation. They post the results on their web site — unionstats.com. 

As the sample sizes from the survey get smaller, their accuracy is reduced. But we can still learn a great deal about unionization trends in the states from the work of Hirsch and Macpherson. 

The best thing they do for our purposes is divide union membership in each state into public and private sectors. The overall union membership rate is important from a national economic perspective, but here we are mostly interested in public policy and the effect of public employees upon those policies. 

Using the data from unionstats.com, I created this table, which lists each state, the number of public employees it has, the number of public employees it has who belong to a union and that number expressed as a percentage of the government workforce. 

For each state, I added the political party that holds the majority in the legislature, using the breakdown that existed after the November 2018 elections, as provided by Ballotpedia. The only legislature with houses split between the two parties was Minnesota’s, so I awarded it to the Democrats based on their majority in the state house of representatives and Democratic governor. By this measure, we have 30 Republican states and 20 Democratic states, plus the Democratic District of Columbia. 

Once we rank the states by public-sector union membership rate, we find something that makes intuitive sense but is still remarkable in its extent. The states with the higher percentages of public-sector union members are overwhelmingly Democratic, and those with the lower percentages are overwhelmingly Republican. 

There is even an obvious dividing line. Of the 22 states with the highest percentages of public employee union members, 17 have legislatures controlled by Democrats. Of the 28 states and D.C. with the lowest percentages of public employee union members, 25 have legislatures controlled by Republicans. 

In Michigan, the percentage of public employees who belong to unions has dropped from 60.3 percent to 45.1 percent since 2009. In Wisconsin, it dropped from 55.7 percent to 25.7 percent over the same period. 

Michigan and Wisconsin have passed Right to Work laws in the past 10 years.  Meanwhile, last month in Virginia, the governor signed a bill that will allow public employee collective bargaining beginning May 1, 2021. It will most likely lead to an increase in the state’s current public-sector union membership rate of 9.9 percent. 

New Mexico, one of four Democratic states in the lower half of the rankings, is also looking to strengthen its collective bargaining law for public employees. 

People may differ about what is cause and what is effect. Are public employee unions instrumental in creating Democratic legislative majorities, or are Democratic legislative majorities instrumental in boosting union membership? Or both at the same time? 

What isn’t in dispute is the strong relationship between the two. Rather than concerning ourselves with whether Virginia is trending union and Michigan non-union, we should all ask why state governments’ relationships with their own employees determines party composition and the direction of public policy.