The Big Picture Numbers
As of 2006, in Colorado, 5.0% of the private sector work force (92,589 workers), and 22.8% of the public sector work force (82,564 workers) was made up of union members. Another 10,948 private sector workers and 10,096 public sector workers were in union covered work places but were not union members themselves.
In contrast, in 1983 in Colorado, 11.2% of private sector workers (120,298 workers) and 24.1% of public sector workers (57,592 workers) were union members. In absolute terms, the number of union members in Colorado (public sector and private sector combined) has declined only about 4% from 1983 levels. But, rising public sector union membership in absolute numbers masks a significant decline in private sector union membership in absolute numbers. Falling private sector union membership rates continued from 2005 to 2006 in Colorado.
For many decades, Colorado has had less unionization than the nation as a whole. Nationally, 7.4% of the private sector labor force and 36.2% of the public sector labor force was in a union in 2006. In 1983, 16.5% of the private sector labor force and 36.7% of the public sector labor force in the nation was in a union. In 1973, 24.2% of the private sector labor force and 23.0% of the public sector labor force in the nation was in a union. At the 1950s peak, about a third of private sector employees in the United States were in unions. Current private sector union membership levels in the United States are at 1920s pre-National Labor Relations Act levels.
Declines in unions membership are matched, at least nationally, by a decline in the number of strikes in the United States. The strikes that do happen also tend to be shorter and involve fewer workers. While two of the big three automakers experienced strikes this year, for example, both were very short.
The Changing Character Of Colorado's Union Movement
The shift of the union movement, in Colorado and nationwide, from the private sector to the public sector, and from industrial and construction workers to service workers, has also changed the character of the labor movement itself.
Public sector workers tend to be more white collar, and also have different concerns and objectives. Unlike workers in traditionally heavily unionized sectors like mining, manufacturing and construction, public sector workers who more often work in offices are less concerned about job safety (obviously there are exceptions such as road workers, police and fire protection employees). Unlike many unionized private sector workers, public sector workers are largely immune to both offshoring and the direct economic impacts of immigration, although outsourcing to private sector contractors such as private prison and probation providers is still an issue. Public sector workers have job security through the civil service system, whether or not they organize, and have generally had state and local retirement system coverage that make concerns about solvency of social safety nets like Social Security largely irrelevant to them personally. Governments are generally law abiding and usually pay more than minimum wage, so sweat shop issues like getting paid as agreed for work performed is rarely an issue in the public sector, with the occasional exception of overtime disputes.
Finally, public sector labor relations are largely a matter of state law, while private sector labor relations are largely subject to federal law in a time period that has seen more anti-union Republican influence than pro-union Democratic influence over the last quarter of a century. Since public sector unions are asking for different things than private sector unions are from their employers, the employer aversion to unions in the public sector isn't nearly as strong as it is in the private sector. Many public sector unions in the United States don't even have a right to strike or to engage in collective bargaining. Private sector opposition to unionization is as much about a fear of loss of control as it is about a fear that union worker's share of the economic pie will increase. Public sector employers, in contrast, are already hidebound by a myriad of regulations and procedures, so they have less of a visceral stake in being able to run their organizations precisely as they wish. While employees have less to gain from unionizing in the public sector, public employers have less to lose from unionization. Equally critical, management pay in the public sector is rarely significantly impacted by management's ability to reduce worker pay, something that is almost always the case in the private sector.
In the construction industry, within the private sector in Colorado, 6.0% of workers were union members. In the manufacturing industry, within the private sector in Colorado, 8.8% of workers were union members. Thus, even in the private sector the union movement in Colorado does not fit the rust belt factory worker stereotype very well. One in ten private sector union members in Colorado works in construction, and another two in ten work in manufacturing.
The big gorilla in Colorado's private sector union movement is the SEIU, which represents service workers and recently split from the AFL-CIO (rifts are weaker in Colorado than in much of the rest of the nation, however). This is due in large part to the fact that it has been among the most effective of all of the private sector unions at growing its ranks by organizing additional employers in a sector of the U.S. economy which is growing as a counterpart to the high tech sector in an increasingly stratified economy. While immigration has an important impact on service industry workers, offshoring is not much of a concern for most of these jobs. It is impractical for hotels to send their laundry to India or China or Mexico, or for casinos to have cards dealt from the Philippines, for example.
Also, in Colorado, unlike some states with more private sector unionization, a significant number of union businesses find union status to be useful niche marketing tool and means of establishing credibility with their customers, as opposed to a hindrance. For example, this is true of Denver's new unionized hotel (the Hyatt), its small number of union printers, and its unionized performing artists. Some people and organizations feel a social responsibility and general desire to buy union when they are able to do so, and these businesses meet their demand.
Historically, unions have been a key constituency of the Democratic Party, so declining union membership in Colorado hurts Democrats. Unions play much the same role in the Democratic party that the Christian Right plays in the Republican party. They provide the legions of rank and file activists needed for the endless barrage of volunteers needed to keep the party functioning, while other party constituencies provide the bulk of the money needed to fund campaigns and party operations. In much of the same period, a significant number of union members became "Reagan Democrats" because of their more conservative opinions of social issues than the rest of the Democratic party. According to writers at the National Review these voters remain at the core of Republican efforts to widen their base.
Together, these forces have also reduced union clout in Democratic politics. For example, Colorado unions have been bitterly disappointed at Denver Congresswoman Diana DeGette's support for certain free trade pacts, and this union dissatisfaction, combined with a desire on the part of the large Hispanic community for greater representation, attempted unsuccessfully to back a primary challenge to DeGette on that basis a few years back.
This lack of clout on trade issues may in part be due to a less enthusiastic commitment in the base to the issues than in other states. In Colorado's union movement, a majority of unionized workers aren't personally impacted at work by offshoring, because they are in public sector or captive construction and service sector jobs, but are impacted in their pocket books by import prices. Solidarity may be enough to get Colorado union members to oppose trade pacts that hurt members in the goods producing industries anyway. But, solidarity alone isn't enough to get people to devote massive amounts of time and trouble to making a full court press on these issues.
In contrast, Colorado's unions have largely avoided potentially explosive intraparty and internecine fights over immigration with a strategy of embracing a policy of better treatment of less skilled and undocumented immigrant workers as a means of leveling the playing field, improving working conditions for all, and expanding their ranks in the process. This firm policy has contained fights between U.S. born workers who see their job security and pay compromised by immigration, and immigrant workers, who make up a particularly large share of Colorado's working class. In part, this stance of a product of the fact that it is harder for the larger (and often public sector) employers who are more frequently unionized to flaut immigration requirements, which already strongly discourage employment based less skilled immigration. In part, it is an ideology decision driven by a generally pro-minority, pro-working class, pro-outsider orientation that permiates the Democratic party. The civil rights movement of the 1960s established a set of widespread values that have muted personal self-interest in reducing immigration.
Of course, unions are still very much at the table and a player in Democratic party politics, and union money is still an important part of the funding base for Democratic politicians. While unions are hurting in terms of private sector membership, their superior organization to almost all other Democratic party constituencies (in union talk, solidarity), and the rising numbers of public sector union members who have brought new talents relevant to political action to the movement have kept unions powerful well beyond what their numbers might suggest. Also, the trend of the union movement towards the public sector and relative weakness of the union movement in the state, has limited the amount of intraparty conflict in Colorado between business oriented Democrats and labor oriented Democrats. The issues that unions care about in Colorado are often not the issues that worry most business oriented Democrats very much.
The big unanswered question for Colorado unions is to what extent their decline has been fundamentally a product of the Democrats years in the wilderness, that have led to scores of anti-union rulings from the NLRB and little legislation to counteract that trend. If anti-union legislation is the main problem, unions have good reason to hope for growing clout in the years to come as Democratic power in Washington is waxing. This often gets summed up in a conclusion that management union busting efforts are behind the observed decline in union membership.
But, an alternative hypothesis or two are possible, and, of course, in reality, there isn't a yes or no answer. One is that union decline is a result of substantive legislative gains already made that render the average worker's need for a union less acute. When government officials enforce minimum wage, overtime, worker safety and others laws to protect you, you don't have to negotiate with your employer on those points.
Another hypothesis is that the changing structure of the United States economy, which has hurt industries where unions have historically been strong, and helped industries that lack a tradition of, or need for unionization, like professional dominated high technology firms were distinctions between management and labor are more muted, and small businesses, where collective action isn't materially helped or hurt by organization at the firm level -- the traditional pattern of union organization in the United States. Transitioning from a firm based pattern of unionization to an industry based pattern of unionization might help the labor movement, but it would also require a massive legislative effort that would face fierce business opposition and would disrupt the vested interests of many union officials in the status quo.
If these alternative causes of union membership decline are important, recovery will be much harder for private sector unions. And, of course, the weaker private sector unions get, the less clout they will have to reform laws that hurt them as well.