Labor Day and the Federal Worker

First Labor Day Parade on September 5, 1882, New York City

Today marks the nation’s 118th official celebration of Labor Day, established by law in 1894 when Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota introduced S. 730 to make Labor Day a federal holiday on the first Monday of each September.  It’s roots extend back even before that. The first true Labor Day occurred on September 5, 1882 when New York’s Central Labor Union passed a resolution “that the 5th of September be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen in this city.” In celebration, many of New York’s unions held a parade in the city’s Wendel’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and 9th Avenue. Thus was borne, as the Department of Labor describes it, “the yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

Labor Day was originally intended as a celebration of organized labor but we note that union membership is now on the wane. A report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) earlier this year reported that in 2011, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union–was 11.8% (14.8 million members). Compare that to 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, and we find that the rate of union membership has been nearly halved. The union membership rate in 1983 was 20.1% and there were 17.7 million union workers.

Though private-sector union membership has waned substantially, government participation has held strong. 2011 data shows that 7.6 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.2 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public-sector workers (37.0%) is markedly higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.9%).

Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 43.2%. This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters.  However, federal unions have a solid base as well.  Today 28.1% of federal workers belong to a labor union or an employee association similar to a union. The number increases to 33.2% when we further include all federal employees whose jobs are covered by a union or an employee association contract. That number has declined slightly in the past decade but federal unions still remain a force to be reckoned with.

Unsurprisingly, the unions have thrown their weight behind President Obama’s re-election campaign. This, especially, as one plank of the Republican platform unveiled in last week’s convention calls for a 10% reduction in the federal payroll. Bills circulating in both the House and Senate suggest that the Republican party intends to reach its goal primarily through workforce reductions. H.R. 3029 calls for a 10% reduction in the total number of federal employees within three years and S. 1476 calls for a 15% reduction within ten years. If this 10% – 15% reduction were applied to GSA’s lease portfolio it would equate to a 19 – 29 million square foot decrease in GSA’s inventory (this assumes the reduction is applied to the entire non-Postal federal workforce though, as a practical matter, some agencies will be exempted) . As we consider the potential implications of the November elections, this issue is one that could have a substantial impact on the federal government’s demand for leased space.

American Federation of Government Employees marching in 1987 Labor Day Parade