Opinion Columns & Blogs

Chapman Rackaway: Death of unions is greatly exaggerated

On the list of states with a strong union presence, Kansas is not one of the first to come to mind. But today unions are making noise in unlikely places like Kansas and Wisconsin.

Union supporters and protesters claim that the proposed union restrictions would be the end of unions. At issue is whether employees of governments should be able to unionize, and how far their rights should go.

Are we really witnessing the last stand of the American labor union? In simple terms, no.

Unions have experienced declining memberships since their national peak in the 1960s and 1970s, when 30 million employees (about a third of the work force) were members of collective-bargaining groups. Decline in manufacturing jobs and the rise of a service economy have contributed to a steep drop in union membership, to about 14 million members who make up less than 20 percent of the American work force.

To offset the loss of blue-collar members, unions have expanded into the service economy and now, most notably, the public sector. The rise of government employee unions is at the heart of the new debate.

Critics of government-employee unionization point to generous benefits and ever-expanding government as a byproduct of collective bargaining for public employees. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to end public-employee unions to stave off what he says is impending financial ruin. Union leaders in return have portrayed the Wisconsin proposal as a general attack on all unions and their members, equating public-employee unionization rights with those of workers in any industry.

The Kansas Legislature has not followed Wisconsin's model, because Topeka is not trying to ban government-employee unions outright. At issue is a bill that would end voluntary paycheck donations to union political action committees.

Union leaders think that the end of such "checkoff" donations threatens them. Republicans claim that unions intimidate their members to give.

Hundreds of pro-union protesters converged on the state Capitol during the Democratic Party's Washington Days observance last weekend, representing a variety of unions including the state's public-employees group, the Kansas Organization of State Employees.

Should those employed by the government be able to collectively bargain the same way private-employee unions do? The answer is complex.

When private-employee unions negotiate pay or benefit increases, businesses can raise prices, which consumers can opt not to pay. When public-employee unions negotiate pay raises, that pay comes out of tax revenue from which nobody is exempt.

Whether you see the paycheck-deduction bill as class warfare or cleaning up one of the vestiges of old-style corruption is largely an ideological question. The Wisconsin proposal represents a greater threat against unions than Kansas' minor change to how unions raise political money.

But even taken together, unions are hardly under threat from these proposals. Private workers still would be able to unionize, pensions and health benefits likely would remain quite generous, and unions would find new ways to do political fundraising within their memberships. Unions will continue to be power players for some time to come.