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Across the country and here in New York, municipal and state employees enrolled in unions now outnumber those in the private sector.

It's a sign that labor officials in both private and public employment say is another sign that traditional union jobs in manufacturing are disappearing.

"We're importing more goods than we manufactured here in this country," said Larry Bulman, the business manager for Local 773 of the Plumbers and Steamfitters union. "As these companies move overseas or shut down, we've lost union jobs."

The National Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this month that 7.9 million public employees claimed union membership in 2009, compared to the 7.4 million people working for private companies.

It was the first time that the ranks of public employee unions outnumbered private labor organizations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In New York, public employee unions and private sector labor groups have traded off membership leadership since 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Figures for 2009 were not available.

The bureau reported less than one million private sector labor organization members. Meanwhile, public sector union members accounted for just over one million workers in New York.

"We've had an expansion over time in the number of public employees," said Ivan Steen, a professor of history at the University at Albany.

The Taylor Law, passed by the state Legislature after a New York City school teachers strike in 1960, allowed public employees to unionize.

At the same time, private employers have become hostile to attempts at organizing workers, Steen said.

"Of course, in an economy like we have today, people are thankful to have jobs so they're not out trying to get unionized," Steen said. "In the public sector it's different and it's a more friendly thing."

It's been at the local level where public employee organizations have grown the most.

According to the Labor Department, municipal employees like teachers, police officers and firefighters, make up 44 percent of union members across the country.

Jock Williamson, the local CSEA president in Washington County, said the ranks of his union has increased in recent years because workers want more say in the terms of their contracts.

"I think one of things you're seeing a union increase for public employees because their benefits and pay have been coming under attack," Williamson said. "They're trying to position themselves to be in a position to be players."

There are seven public employee unions that represent Washington County workers. Most recently, the local Teamsters organized about a dozen county Public Works employees following job losses in that department.

Joe Fox, the statewide vice president for the Public Employees Federation and a member of organizing committee for the National Federation of Teachers, echoed Williamson.

"People realized they can't do it alone," he said of the growth of public employee unions. "They realized it had to be a national voice. All of them have been aggressively organizing to help public sector employees."

Bulman, of the Steamfitters union, said his organization has grown modestly over the last 10 years because it was able to diversify.

As mills and other industries downsized, the Steamfitters adapted to residential and hotel work.

"We took advantage of all our markets to do the trade," Bulman said.

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