The Past as Prologue? A Brief History of the Labor Movement in the United States

Source: Joseph Adler, Public Personnel Management, Winter 2006, Volume 35, no. 4

Of the approximately 20 million public employees in the United States, more than eight million are either members of or represented by labor unions—a penetration rate of just over 40 percent. What is remarkable about this phenomenal growth is that most of the expansion of union activity in government has occurred within the last 40 years, and almost mirrors the decline of union strength in the private sector.

The rise and fall of labor in the private sector is a backdrop to the growth of public sector collective bargaining. Explanations for the dramatic increase in government union activity can be explored from a number of different perspectives. Current public policy efforts to reform civil service and allow managers greater flexibility are seen by some researchers as having the potential to impact the ability of public sector unions to represent their members effectively.

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