“All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
-- President Franklin Roosevelt in an August 16, 1937 letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees.
President Obama laid out some ambitious liberal goals this week, including gun control, same-sex marriage, reversing global warming and increased federal spending.
But it’s that last one that he’d better get busy with if he means to get any of the rest.
Obama’s Department of Labor released the unhappy news for Democrats: Union membership in America has fallen to the lowest level since before the New Deal laws to encourage union organization.
Overall union membership dropped by about 400,000 members from 2011 to 2012, a decline of 11.8 to 11.3 percent of the U.S. workforce. But the worst news for union leaders is where the decline occurred: in what had been their only growth sector, government workers.
More than half of the loss came among government workers. The majority of union members are now government workers and government workers have a union membership rate of 37 percent, about five times higher than the private sector.
An irony for private-sector labor unions has always been that their larger ideological aims of protecting workers from abuse are often at odds with their more urgent objectives of growing membership rolls and increasing dues payments.
The safeguards in place to protect workers today from discrimination, intimidation, overwork, underpay and other abuses would have seemed fantastic to the organizers of the early 20th Century when federal involvement in labor issues was usually limited to shooting rioting strikers, and in one case, even having the Army Air Corps bomb them.
But if by federal decree, the boss man can’t pay you in scrip and he has to pay overtime, offer health benefits and give you a lunch break, the urgency of the Matewan days is hard to re-create.
What unions mostly offer private sector workers today is the hope of better pay and better benefits. Workers then must decide if the income they sacrifice in dues, the danger to their employer’s profits and continued operation and aggravation of membership itself are worth the price. Oftentimes they decide to not to bother.
This trend, combined with aggressive efforts by companies to resist organizing drives, has seen private-sector union membership tumble in recent years. Membership crept downward from the big-labor peak of the 1950s when manufacturing and bare-knuckled union clout were at their peaks, down from a third of the workforce to about 20 percent by the 1980s.
In recent decades, though, it has become a crisis for trade unions like autoworkers, coal miners and steelworkers who have been doubly damaged as their industries have collapsed (often due in part to the labor contracts themselves) and the remaining workers shun union membership.
The latest report shows private-sector membership at an abysmal 6.6 percent, down from 6.9 percent the year before even as the economy added 1.2 million jobs.
Contracts with big, highly-regulated companies and membership drives among low-skill service workers previously shunned by labor groups can hold the line for a time, but the private-sector labor movement is in hospice care.
But public-sector unions had been a boom market for much of the last 30 years and unions and Democratic officials entered into an expensive symbiosis. Unions helped elect Democrats on the local, state and federal level. Those Democrats then helped unions organize government workers who then demanded higher pay and better benefits, some of which cycled back to the Democrats in the form of political contributions.
But the taxes that funded the arrangement have been insufficient in recent years, especially since the Panic of 2008. The answer in blue states has mostly been to raise taxes while the answer in many red states has been to curb the power of government worker unions.
These curbs account for some of the sharp decline from 2011 to 2012, as members in states like Wisconsin and Indiana where state workers were no longer forced to pay dues, opted out.
But most of the drop in government worker rolls came as local and state government workforces shrank, shrank, shrank.
Unable to support their payrolls, those governments had been forced to leave positions unfilled and even fire some workers. The Obama stimuli of 2009 and 2010 were in large part aimed at helping cash-strapped governments retain and expand their workforces. Democrats very much liked this approach because it shored up their most important political benefactors.
But in the era of divided government, there have been no stimuli and there is even the threat that federal spending would be cut.
Whatever Democrats say about Republicans and the changing demographics of America, it’s perfectly clear that the blue team cannot survive as constituted without their patrons in the government worker unions.
Unless Obama can find a way to prop up state and local payrolls, the trend will continue and as Republicans continue to hold sway in governors’ mansions and state houses, the practice of forcing state workers to pay dues will become increasingly out of fashion. It sounds icky and requires a complicated defense.
The president rallied his base on Monday, calling for collective action to deliver a wish-list of liberal initiatives. But the biggest, most important part of his collective needs some shoring up before they can help him and other Democrats.
Spending cuts, government shutdowns and other such disasters for Democrats are made all the more frightening to the blue team because of the fact that they mean fewer union dues payments and fewer members.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“And here we are four months after the attack in Libya and we can't speak to the witnesses. I'm just shocked nobody asked or pursued that. There are a lot of questions like that, that were easy to ask. And I'm afraid that the members of commerce prefer to ramble on. And certainly didn't ask a very short and direct question like that.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.