WASHINGTON (AP) — Unions representing government workers are expanding while organized labor has been shedding private sector members over the past half-century.
A majority of union members today now have ties to a government entity, at the federal, state or local levels.
Roughly 1-in-3 public sector workers is a union member, compared with about 1-in-15 for the private sector workforce last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers in the United States are unionized, down from a peak of 35 percent during the mid-1950s in the strong post-World War II recovery.
The typical union worker now is more likely to be an educator, office worker or food or service industry employee rather than a construction worker, autoworker, electrician or mechanic. Far more women than men are among the union-label ranks.
In a blow to public sector unions, the Supreme Court ruled this week that thousands of health care workers in Illinois who are paid by the state cannot be required to pay fees that help cover a union's cost of collective bargaining.
The justices said the practice violates the First Amendment rights of nonmembers who disagree with stances taken by unions.
The ruling was narrowly drawn, but it could reverberate through the universe of unions that represent government workers. The case involved home-care workers for disabled people who are paid with Medicaid funds administered by the state.
Also in June, a California judge declared unconstitutional the state's teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws. The judge ordered a stay of the decision, pending an appeal by the state and teachers union.
"The basic structure of the labor union movement has changed, reflecting changes in the economy," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "Manufacturing is a diminishing segment of the economy. Also, a lot of the manufacturing that's being done today is being done nonunion."
Union members continue to be a powerful political force in politics, and Baker said he didn't see the role of unions diminishing. "I just think the colors of the collars are changing," Baker said.
In 2013, 14.5 million workers belonged to a union, about the same as the year before. In 1983, the first year for which comparable figures are available, there were 17.7 million union workers.
The largest union is the National Education Association, with 3.2 million members. It represents public school teachers, administrators and students preparing to become teachers.