Numbers Show Government Employees Top Private Sector Counterparts in Colorado’s Union Membership

It looks very much like Colorado is only one year behind in achieving a labor movement milestone measured at the national level. A little over a year ago I reported the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) finding that government employees represented a numerical majority of the unionized workforce in the United States. (You can listen to a 2010 iVoices podcast on this finding that I recorded with the Alliance for Worker Freedom.)

This milestone is the culmination of a decades-long trend in which private sector unions have diminished while Big Labor has targeted government agencies as fruitful sources of revenue. As of 2010, we have the first strong indications that the same observation can be made of Colorado — namely, that more of the state’s union members work for government than for a private employer.

In light of the legislative action taking place in Ohio and Wisconsin, I have written on some of the critical differences related to union collective bargaining between the private sector and the public sector. An even better explanation of the inherent defects in government collective bargaining appears in a recent op-ed by David Denholm published in the Washington Examiner.

Well, the same David Denholm’s Public Service Research Foundation (PSRF) has nicely assembled some of the state-level BLS numbers in the UnionStats database created by Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson. In a memo he sent out, Denholm notes that the state-level numbers on the size of the workforce and the level of unionization are not as reliable because of smaller sample sizes. Therefore, he recommends using five-year rolling averages to get a more reliable snapshot of trends.

Anyway, I have uploaded in PDF format both the table and series of charts produced by PSRF. The latest data show Colorado has about 140,400 union members, and 71,000 of them work in government. It’s hard to be too definitive, because the estimates fall within the margin of error. But having more union members in the public sector than in the private sector definitely would be a first for Colorado!

Other things to note about the data:

  • Colorado employs just over 1.8 million private sector workers, and an estimated 3.8 percent of them are union members — down from a rate of 11.2 percent in 1983
  • Colorado employs about 325,000 government workers, and an estimated 21.8 percent of them are union members (every year since 1983, the rate has come in somewhere between 20 and 28 percent)
  • While Colorado’s overall union membership rate was never higher than as measured in 1983, the earliest year with available data, the number of union members peaked in 2007
  • The state’s number of union members today is comparable to the number of unionized workers from 1988 to 1993, though the workforce today is roughly 50 percent larger
  • The data strongly suggest that Colorado rates of union membership and density (workers represented by a union contract, whether or not they join and pay dues) in the construction and manufacturing sectors are at historic lows

One can only look ahead to next year and guess what the numbers will show, but I won’t be surprised to see more confirmation that taxpayer-compensated government workers officially have become the face of Colorado’s labor movement — just as they’ve done nationally.

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