WASHINGTON — The number of union workers employed by the government for the first time outnumbered union ranks in the private sector last year, the result of massive layoffs that plunged the rate of private-sector union membership to a record low.
Local, state and government workers made up 51.5 percent of all union members in 2009, up from 48.7 percent a year ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday.
Overall, union membership declined by 771,000 workers, to 15.3 million. But with the number of nonunion workers also shrinking, the rate of union membership fell only slightly to 12.3 percent of all workers from 12.4 percent in 2008.
Private-sector union membership plummeted by 10 percent, while government unions posted slight gains.
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The shift shows the continued difficulty unions face in trying to revive a movement that has declined steadily since its peak of about 35 percent of workers in the 1950s. And it undermines the traditional ability of unions to push private sector wages higher.
While public sector employment has largely held up in the recession, losses could hit government workers harder this year without more federal aid to states and localities.
The recession battered two industries with high union density — manufacturing and construction — leading to a decline in private-sector union membership from 7.6 percent to 7.2 percent of all workers. That's the lowest rate since the BLS began keeping records in 1983.
Much of the problem for unions is that private employers have been more successful in resisting union organizing drives.
"Employers can retaliate against private sector workers who want to form a union with impunity, and in the public sector it doesn't work that way," said Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel at the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation.
Local government workers — a group that includes teachers, police officers and firefighters — had the highest union membership rate at 43.3 percent. Many states allow public sector employees to form unions through a process known as majority sign-up or "card check." That allows workers to form a union by signing cards instead of holding a secret-ballot vote.
Passing legislation in Congress that would make it easier for private sector workers to unionize has been a top priority of organized labor. But that's unlikely to pass this year, now that a Republican victory in a special election in Massachusetts has cost Senate Democrats and their independent allies their 60-seat majority.
The median earnings of full-time wage and salary workers were $908 per week for union members last year, compared with $710 for employees not represented by a union, the Labor Department said.
"These numbers show a need for Congress to pass legislation to level the playing field to enable more American workers to access the benefits of union membership," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
James Sherk, a labor policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the shift to public sector workers has increased labor's call for "higher taxes on Americans to fund more government spending."