The story of America’s declining union membership is a continuing saga that makes labor leaders wince.
The latest chapter in that story was revealed last week when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released figures showing the percentage of workers who are union members now stands at just 11.3 percent, the lowest level since 1983, when the government began collecting comparable data. Then, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.
But federal unions, except for U.S. Postal Service labor organizations, have a different story. By most indications, they are strong and growing.
In May of fiscal year 2012, 1.2 million federal employees were in a bargaining unit, according to the Office of Personnel Management. That’s an increase of almost 98,000 since 2002.
Federal employees are joining unions because the workers want a greater say in their working conditions. Federal labor organizations don’t negotiate pay, as private-sector unions do, but they can provide a way for employees “to participate in solving agency problems,” said Robert M. Tobias, director of public-sector executive education at American University. Tobias also is a past president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
Data from the labor statistics bureau indicate that in two of three categories of federal employment, “public administration” (including finance, public safety and congressional agencies) and “other” (including agriculture and health care), union membership and representation are up, sometimes significantly. Federal unions represent all the employees in a bargaining unit, even if all of them aren’t dues-paying members.
In the public administration category, 271,000 federal workers, or 15.3 percent, were union members, and 340,000, or nearly one-fifth, were represented by unions last year. The membership figure is 19,000 more than in the year 2000, and the representation number is up 5,000. The “other” category also demonstrated impressive gains.
The American Federation of Government Employees reports a big membership jump, from 197,014 in 2000 to 282,535 in 2012. That’s a 43 percent increase. Much of that growth comes from the 45,000 Transportation Security Administration employees that AFGE won the right to organize.
“We’ve grown quite a bit in the federal sector,” said Matt Biggs, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. He said his union’s membership has “increased dramatically” since 2000 because IFPTE organized two bargaining units at the Government Accountability Office and affiliated with an independent union representing workers at the Tennessee Valley Authority.
National Federation of Federal Employees membership also is up, more than 2,500 since 2007.
In some cases, federal union membership is up, even as agency employment is down.
“Despite declines in the numbers of federal employees in most NTEU-represented agencies, NTEU has seen strong growth in our membership numbers of approximately 14,000 since the year 2000,” said Colleen M. Kelley, NTEU’s president. Over the past decade, NTEU has organized new units, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, Treasury Departmental Offices, the National Credit Union Administration, the Office of Thrift Supervision and won a representation election in Customs and Border Protection.
NTEU’s membership is about 83,000 and it represents 150,000 employees. Representation is up about 10,000 from 2000, according to union information.
“However, it is important to note that in nearly all of our agencies, the number of federal workers continues to decline,” Kelley added. “The IRS has 20,000 fewer employees today than it did in 1995 and 5,000 fewer than it did a year ago. The number of taxpayers continues to grow as well, as the number of tax returns and the complexity of those returns. The story is similar in other agencies.”
In addition to “public administration” and “other,” the remaining category in the labor data is the Postal Service. USPS has been in something of a financial death spiral for years and it has slashed staff to save money. Since 2006, USPS has cut its career workforce by 24 percent — that’s 168,000 people, the size of a small city.
That has taken its toll on the postal unions.
BLS data indicate membership in USPS labor organizations fell to 458,000 in 2012, from 632,000 in 2000.
The National Association of Letter Carriers had about 240,000 members in 2000 and 180,000 now.
The National Postal Mail Handlers Union reports membership dropping to less than 41,000 today from a high of about 60,000 a decade ago.
“APWU membership has declined significantly since 2000 as a direct result of the loss of postal jobs — especially in the crafts we represent,” said Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union. “The number of employees represented by the APWU was a little more than 354,000 in 2000; at the end of 2012 it was a little more than 208,000. . . . It is interesting to note that the percentage of union members has increased — it now stands at more than 84 percent [in APWU bargaining units].”
James Sherk, a Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst in labor economics who has angered federal employees with his views on federal pay and unions, said “the decline in Postal employment comes almost entirely from technological innovation: e-mail and automatic bill pay have replaced many of the letters Americans once physically mailed. As that trend continues, the Post Office will need fewer and fewer workers. That will also mean fewer and fewer Postal union members.”
But Davidow said it doesn’t have to be that way.
She blames a “congressionally manufactured financial crisis” for the closing of postal facilities and job losses.
As a result, she added, “service to the American people is suffering.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.