Decades ago, even union leaders thought the idea of organizing government employees was a bad one, or at least impractical.

"It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government," said then-AFL-CIO President George Meany in 1955. Labor contracts can be trumped by legislation, for example. And civil service protections eliminate the need for a union in many instances.

But times have changed a lot since then. Today, more union members work for America's local, state and federal governments than work in the entire private sector.

Labor unions realized that governments, unlike private business, have no competition and are thus less constrained in providing benefits. Plus, union members can vote. Private-sector employers cannot be fired by their workers, but elected officials might need government unions' support to survive.

Last month, the Labor Department reported the overall unionization rate was 11.3 percent. Only 6.6 percent of the private sector is unionized, but in the public sector the rate is now 35.9 percent.

To put it another way, there are 7 million private-sector union workers, people such as factory workers, nurses, tradesmen and so forth. There 7.3 million union members who work in government. They now find themselves the backbone of the labor movement.

The newfound importance of public-sector unions partly explains the movement's furious reaction against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's effort to rein them in, and similar actions by other Republican governors.

Public-sector unionism costs taxpayers in various ways. For example, federal law allows those workers to do union business while on the job. This is called "official time," and it is meant to balance out the fact that federal employees are limited in their bargaining power and cannot strike.

On Tuesday, the Office of Personnel Management reported that federal employees spent just under 3.4 million hours doing union business on the taxpayer's dime in fiscal 2011. That's up from 3 million hours in fiscal 2010 and 2.9 million in fiscal 2008, the last full year of the Bush administration. The number has been as high as 4.8 million hours in 2002. It had steadily declined throughout the Bush administration, which under Labor Secretary Elaine Chao heightened scrutiny of union activity. The rate hit a low of 2.7 million in fiscal 2007 before it started rising again.

The increase is partly due to the gradual rise in the number of federal workers covered by union contracts. But another reason cited by OPM was "the increased use of labor-management forums to help find more effective and lower cost ways to deliver government services."

In other words, federal employees, instead of spending time doing their jobs, were at forums spending time supposedly learning how to lower the cost of doing their jobs. It's the federal government version of a Dilbert comic.

Those forums, by the way, were created by President Obama under an executive order in 2009. Specifically, it created the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, a "nonadversarial forum for managers, employees, and employees' union representatives to discuss Government operations."

In addition to representatives of federal departments and agencies, the council includes the presidents of the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

The order also allowed for "the heads of three other labor unions that represent Federal employees and are not otherwise represented on the Council." It is not clear what three labor union heads got the council seats, as the council's official website doesn't say. Inquiries on the matter to OPM and the White House weren't answered.

So government unions have come a long way -- from "impossible to collectively bargain with the government" to a special seat at the table created just for them. Never let it be said Obama doesn't know who his friends are.

Sean Higgins ( is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.