Union membership down slightly among federal employees

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; B03

Union membership among federal employees dropped last year to fewer than 1 million, according to new federal statistics.

About 984,000 of the federal government's 3.5 million full- and part-time workers are union members, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday. Union membership dropped 1.2 percent among federal workers from the previous year.

Nearly 1.1 million employees - or 31 percent of the federal government's workers - are represented by unions, an almost 2 percent drop from 2009.

The slimming ranks come as federal worker unions are fending off proposals by congressional Republicans to trim the federal workforce.

The overall drop in federal union membership is tied primarily to the government's wider use of contract and temporary workers, according to J. David Cox, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Despite the decreases, Cox said, membership in the nation's largest federal worker union jumped to 249,000 members, a 17,000-worker increase from 2009.

"We've seen massive growth in our bargaining units in the [Department of Veterans Affairs] and Defense Department," Cox said. "We've continued to not only grow inside of our units, but we've organized new units of unrepresented employees."

The union also saw growth among Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Border Patrol workers, which have seen an increased head count because of recent immigration reform efforts, he said.

"Joining a federal union is one of the most important steps a federal employee can take in his or her federal career," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, the second-largest federal union. NTEU membership climbed to 86,654 in 2010, the highest level of its 72-year history, she said.

Union membership among public sector workers at the federal, state and local level fell to 36 percent, a 1 percent drop from 2009. Private sector union membership fell from 7.2 percent to 6.9 percent.

The data are collected by the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and analyzed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The future of federal worker unionization remains unclear. Workers for the Transportation Security Administration have recently won the right to unionize, but whether they will have collective bargaining rights remains uncertain. AFGE and NTEU are vying to represent transportation security officers, the largest bloc of workers seeking bargaining rights.

But the federal workforce is also ripe for cutbacks. Congressional Republicans and President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission want to cut the federal payroll through furloughs, attrition and the elimination of dozens of federal agencies or programs that employ thousands of workers.

Union leaders have warned that cuts in federal salaries and benefits packages could cause the rapid departure of older workers and make it more difficult to recruit younger, talented replacements.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company