Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Bargaining Representation and Union Membership in the Federal Sector: A Free Rider's Paradise

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Bargaining Representation and Union Membership in the Federal Sector: A Free Rider's Paradise

Article excerpt

Bargaining Representation and Union Membership in the Federal Sector: A Free Rider's Paradise

The federal government is extensively organized in terms of the number of employees belonging to exclusively recognized bargaining units. Yet, the largest federal-employee union is in serious financial trouble because of its relatively small membership. This article examines bargaining representation and union membership data among the three principal federal-employee unions during the 1981-1987 period. It finds that 1) each union faces a sizable free rider problem, and 2) the magnitude of the problem differs substantially across unions. The article discusses the financial implications of this problem and offers insights as to future directions in federal-sector unionism.

Extensive union representation exists among federal government employees at both the white collar (general schedule, or GS) and the blue collar (wage grade, or WG) levels. More than 1.2 million, or approximately 62%, of these employees belong to exclusively recognized bargaining units.(1) The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) represents more than half of these employees (nearly 700,000), making it one of the ten largest unions in the United States in terms of the number of represented employees. The relative insulation of federal employment and compensation from economic adversity forecasts a sanguine situation for the AFGE.

Yet, the AFGE faces serious financial problems, which have resulted in an emergency loan from a consortium of AFL-CIO affiliated unions (the AFGE is an AFL-CIO affiliate).(2) Doubts exist as to whether or not the loan will enable the AFGE to survive, raising the possibility of a merger with a more solvent union, such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

What explains this apparent anomaly? In simplest terms, and absent evidence of financial improprieties, it is either insufficient revenues or excessive costs, or both. The costs of providing minimally acceptable representation services to nearly 700,000 employees located in more than 1,000 bargaining units are undoubtedly considerable. This article, however, focuses on the possibility that revenues are insufficient, at least in part, because of extensive free riding among these represented employees. The AFGE claims 207,000 dues-paying members, only 177,000 of whom are current employees; the others are retirees.(3) It thus represents more than 500,000 free riders.

The article is divided into several sections. The first discusses the principal sources of union revenues and the means of generating more money. The second briefly mentions the arguable barriers to union membership in the federal sector under extant law. The third presents data on aggregate bargaining representation, and the fourth disaggregates these data among the three principal federal unions (the AFGE, the National Federation of Federal Employees [NFFE], and the National Treasury Employees Union [NTEU]). The fifth examines the unions' financial situations, focusing on actual revenues and the potential revenues that might be generated if free riding were modestly reduced. The sixth highlights AFGE's current vulnerability, and the last draws the main conclusions and implications.

We focus on the unions' bargaining recognition, membership, and financial data during the 1981-1987 period. This permits a longitudinal account of contemporary developments. Data were collected from government publications, union financial disclosure reports, journalistic reports, and interviews.(4)

Sources of Revenues

Obviously, all unions need money in order to perform effectively as employee representatives. As mass-based organizations, their principal sources of revenues are the dues and assessments charged to members. In turn, the primary base from which unions draw members is the group of employees belonging to bargaining units that have been duly certified under applicable labor law. …

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