The Changing Face of Public Employee Unionism

DOI10.1177/0734371X06290967
Date01 March 2007
Published date01 March 2007
Subject MatterArticles
71
Review of Public Personnel
Administration
Volume 27 Number 1
March 2007 71-78
© 2007 Sage Publications
10.1177/0734371X06290967
http://roppa.sagepub.com
hosted at
http://online.sagepub.com
Research Note
The Changing Face of
Public Employee Unionism
Norma M. Riccucci
Rutgers University, Newark
This article provides a brief picture of the various unions that currently represent state
and local government employees in the United States, including teachers and profes-
sors. It reviews the factors that have contributed to union decline in the private sector,
and those factors explaining union growth in the public sector. Its purpose is purely
descriptive, seeking to illustrate the ability of unions to seize opportunities to organize
public employees, thereby increasing their “strength in numbers.”
Keywords: union representation; union growth; union organizing; Change to Win
Coalition
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2004, public employees had a
union membership rate more than 4 times that of private sector employees. The rate
of unionization for all public employees was a little more than 40%, with local govern-
ment employees holding the highest membership rate, at 45.8%. The rate of unioniza-
tion in private industry has continued to drop, and at 8.6% in 2004, it was at an all-time
low (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005c).1As the capacity for unionization has
shifted from the private sector to the public sector during the past several decades, pri-
vate sector unions, experiencing severe losses in their membership bases, have targeted
public employees for unionization (Kearney & Carnevale, 2001). Today, an extraordi-
nary mix of traditionally private sector unions represents public employees.
The purpose of this article is to provide a descriptive account of the various unions
that currently represent state and local government employees and teachers and pro-
fessors in the United States. It begins with a brief examination of the various rea-
sons for the decline in private sector unionism. It also looks at the reasons for the rise
in the unionization of public employees. It then provides a snapshot of the current
union landscape across the nation. The purpose of this article is not to raise questions
about the ability of traditionally private sector unions to represent their new con-
stituencies but rather to illustrate the ability of unions to seize opportunities to orga-
nize public employees, thereby increasing their “strength in numbers.”
The Decline In Private Sector Unionization
By now, we are all too familiar with the various reasons for the precipitous decline
in the rate of private sector unionization. One of the primary reasons for the decline

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