Unions were formed to bring representation to companies that otherwise were accountable to no one but their profit-making owners. But most union workers today work for government, not companies, even though there are five times as many private-sector employees overall, according to recently collected data.
That's a result of growth in the public sector, rising from 18 million to 20.4 million members between 1991 and 2011, rather than increased unionization: The percentage of public employees covered by a collective-bargaining unit actually fell from 43.3 percent to 40.7 percent.
Meanwhile, although the private sector grew from 85 million workers to 105 million workers, the portion covered by collective bargaining nearly halved, from 12.9 percent to 7.6 percent, records show.
The National Education Association added nearly half a million members over the past decade, with the rival American Federation of Teachers adding 137,000. The American Federation of Government Employees added 91,000 members.
The result is that those who need unions least have them most, said J. Justin Wilson, managing director of the Center for Union Facts, a union-watchdog group.
"Anyone would have a difficult time arguing that in the public sector there's a conspiracy to abuse the rights of workers. We have oversight mechanisms in place" and numerous forms of recourse, he said.
The same standards on which private-sector union members and management rely to keep union officials honest stewards of cash don't apply to public-employee unions because of an exemption in federal legislation that monitors unions.
"It's a transparency bill: Union members should be able to see this for themselves so they can make decisions. But public employees are exempted," Mr. Wilson said.
As a result, little is disclosed about how union officials representing non-federal government employees spend dues, even to their own members.
Private-sector unions took in more than $12 billion in income last year, with holdings invested in a variety of ways, much with major banks, and with a few in places decidedly at odds with unions' pro-manufacturing, anti-tax evader messaging.
Unions have blamed, among other factors, Chinese imports made at lower labor costs for the decline of the unionized workforce. But they had $1.5 million invested with the Bank of China last year. International Brotherhood of Teamsters locals had $405,000 held in the Chinese bank, down from $609,000 in 2010, while International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers chapters had $275,000.
During the 2012 presidential race, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) ran ads alleging that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney "hid his profits offshore in the Cayman Islands and in Swiss bank accounts to avoid paying taxes."
But the United Associations of Plumbers had $200,000 in a "Grand Cayman Bank Houston Branch Short Term Fund," while the Laborers' International Union of North America Local 186 held a "BCH Cayman Islands 6.5% bond" in 2004.
A spokesman for the Plumbers union said it may have been a temporary home for the money during a switch by banks, but could not provide more information.
John Donoghue, business manager for the Laborers local wrote in an email, "We do not handle our investments in house. We have investment advisors who handle that."
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers headquarters had $1.6 million in an account marked "MS MP Ivory Flag FD, Offshore," and an additional $1.8 million marked "MS HP OZ Offshore." Its treasurer did not return a call seeking comment.
The long, painful decline of unions hit a low last year at 16.3 million workers covered by collective bargaining, down from 21.5 million in 1977, according to data collected annually by professors Barry T. Hirsch at Georgia State University and David A. Macpherson at Trinity University. Much of the drop is tied to the receding of traditionally unionized industries.
The United Auto Workers union saw the largest membership decline, plunging to 380,000 from 700,000 a decade prior. National Postal Mail Handlers Union lost 215,000, while the Communications Workers of America, whose members include journalists, lost 150,000.
The Laborers lost 215,000, the Machinists lost 142,000 and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters lost 110,000. The Food and Commercial Workers Union lost 100,000, and the Teamsters lost 89,000, disclosures show.
But some unions have tried to replace lost members by adding new industries, expanding significantly beyond their original scopes.
The SEIU, which began as a group for janitors, went from 1.4 million to 1.9 million members between 2001 and 2011, and now represents nurses, doctors and public employees.
"The United Auto Workers' complete name is the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, but they have also started unionizing casino workers and professors," Mr. Wilson noted.
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