Big Labor, Little Membership

By D. Dowd Muska
  • Monday, February 15, 1999

Several weeks ago the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its report on union membership in 1998. The news wasn't good for Big Labor. Last year unions represented an even smaller share of the nation's workforce than they did in 1997. This news has implications for Nevada, a state which has been the target of an aggressive union organizing campaign for several years. But while labor bosses can crow about high-profile victories, particularly in Southern Nevada, their organizing efforts are unlikely to halt workers’ growing disdain for unions. The consequences of Big Labor’s excesses, as well as long-term economic trends, do not bode well for unions in Nevada or the nation.

A Dying Breed

In 1953, 36 percent of American workers belonged to a union. In 1980, the figure had fallen to 20.1 percent. In 1997, it was 14.1 percent. Last year saw another drop, to 13.9 percent. (This trend is not confined to the United States. Around the globe, membership in labor unions is falling.) In recent decades, unionization in America has experienced a shift from the private to the public sector. In 1998, only 9.5 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a union. Government unions—at all levels—now dictate the terms of employment for 37.5 percent of public employees. This shift is important, because as the size and scope of government continues to grow, the power of government unions grows right along with it.

Reaping What They Sow

The rise of unionization in the public sector is easy to understand—bureaucracies don’t have to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace. But for-profit firms do. By driving up the cost of labor, unions play a large role in damaging companies’ profitability—as well as inspiring many to seek cheaper labor abroad. "There is little that companies can do to overcome the cost disadvantage imposed by higher union wages," American Enterprise Institute scholar Kevin Hassett wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps the best evidence of the job-killing consequences of unionization came from a 1996 study conducted for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. It found that between 1960 and 1993, manufacturing jobs in right-to-work states grew by over 2.6 million, while manufacturing jobs in compulsory-unionism states fell by over 1.3 million.

Targeting Nevada

Although Nevada is a right-to-work state, the AFL-CIO sees it as fertile ground for organizing. One in five Nevada workers is a union member, jobs are plentiful and the state’s service sector is thought to be representative of America’s economic future. In the past few years the AFL-CIO has spent millions on organizing campaigns in Las Nevada, but little data exists to indicate the success or failure of these efforts. Big Labor has won several high-profile battles at casinos and medical facilities. But at least one campaign has met with dubious results. The Building Trades Organizing Project (BTOP), an effort to force unionization on Las Vegas's construction industry, has shot itself in the foot several times—its intimidation tactics have led to court-ordered fines and picketing restrictions, as well as the arrests of union demonstrators. In response to the BTOP’s brutish behavior, a coalition of non-union contractors has filed a 22-page complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The Las Vegas Business Press recently reported that the program’s organizers will leave Southern Nevada this year. Union officials downplay speculation about the BTOP’s failure, claiming that construction-related union membership in Las Vegas increased by 7,000 during the program’s two-year existence. But with Nevada’s job growth so phenomenally strong, absolute numbers of union recruits mean very little.

Politics and Corruption

Aggressive—and often illegal—organizing tactics are but one reason workers are saying no to unions. Members and non-members alike are also taking note of the corruption of union bosses and the money and effort Big Labor devotes to far-left politics. Polls consistently show that close to half of union members do not support the political party into which Big Labor pours most of its money. This dissonance extends to ideology as well—on issues such as tax relief, welfare reform and gun ownership, there is a yawning chasm between union members and their "leaders." Union bosses’ longstanding ethical problems are another concern. In the Silver State, Nevada Employees for the Right to Work (NERTW), an all-volunteer group, has launched an effort to educate workers about the corruption and financial chicanery of the Culinary union. For example, a recent federal investigation of the union found links to organized crime, incidences of embezzlement and shoddy auditing procedures. NERTW has discovered that $5 million in dues from Las Vegas workers is funneled to the union’s headquarters in Washington each year. The group is working to get this information to casino employees, and make them aware of their rights under Nevada’s right-to-work law.

Happy Days

Perhaps the biggest impediment to union organizing today is the unprecedented growth of the American economy. While the debate rages over who should get the credit for the nation’s record economic expansion, workers are happily enjoying its rewards. Personal income growth has consistently outpaced inflation since 1994. Times are especially good in Nevada. The Commerce Department recently reported that for the third quarter of 1998, incomes grew faster in Nevada than in any other state. Earlier this month, a report by the Eastridge Group and the Nevada Development Authority found that a majority of Southern Nevada employers are paying higher salaries and are more willing than ever to offer training to their staffs. As more companies offer benefits—such as flex time, relaxed dress codes, on-site day care, profit sharing and stock options—employees are less receptive to the hate-the-boss rhetoric of union agitators. A 1997 poll revealed that only 4 in 100 American workers are "completely dissatisfied" with their jobs. Eighty percent were satisfied with their current positions, and over half were "very satisfied" with their salaries and benefits. Unions have very little to offer these people. Several years ago a poll of private businesses with 25 or more employees found that only one in five workers favored unions as a means to have a say in company decision-making—63 percent preferred cooperation committees.


Notwithstanding its highly publicized organizing efforts in Las Vegas, Big Labor's share of the American workforce continues to dwindle. Competition, globalization and family-friendly workplaces are exposing the workers-versus-management paradigm for the canard it is. Employees are enjoying the fruits of a booming economy, realizing that employers and employees are not enemies and learning about the corruption and radical political agenda of union bosses. Thus, they have little desire to give up their autonomy and accept union representation.

D. Dowd Muska  is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s monthly magazine. He can be contacted at

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