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CNN Truth Squad: How much do unions cost taxpayers?

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:29 AM EDT, Fri September 23, 2011

(CNN) -- The statement:

"We've seen these battles on the state level where unions have bankrupted states from pension plans to here on the federal level. Thirty to 40%, union employees make above their private sector equivalents. I do not believe that state, federal or local workers ... should be involved in unions."

-- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, in Thursday night's Republican presidential debate on Fox News.

The facts:

-- Overall, unionized workers do earn more than non-union counterparts, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median weekly earnings for full-time union members were $917 in 2010, compared to $717 for non-union workers, the BLS reported in January.

-- The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, says union members make about 30% more than non-union workers. They also are more likely to be covered by health insurance and retirement plans, according to the BLS.

-- And public employees are far more likely to be in unions. Fewer than 7% of private-sector employees were union members in 2010, compared to 36% for government employees, according to the BLS.

-- A BLS report in June found private industry spent an average of $28.13 per hour on wages and benefits, compared to $40.40 for state and local government employees. But it noted that public and private-sector costs "should not be directly compared," as they involved many differences in the types of jobs. Many private-sector employees hold sales and manufacturing jobs not often seen in government, for example, while jobs like teachers make up a greater share of public payrolls.

-- While not quite "bankrupted," as Santorum put it, states, cities and counties are struggling with issues like pension costs as their own revenues have been hard-hit by the 2007-2009 recession and its ongoing hangover, according to the non-profit, non-partisan Center for State and Local Government Excellence, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on public employee pay.

-- And while union workers make more in general than non-union workers, a new report from the center found that when total wages and benefits for public employees lag slightly behind private-sector workers, by about 4%. Public pensions and health benefits are more generous, but public employees are more likely to have college degrees and make less than comparable private-sector workers, the study found.

The verdict:

True, but incomplete. Overall, union workers earn more than non-unionized employees, and public employees earn more on average than private-sector workers. But analysts say an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult due to differing occupations, and that many educated workers could make more in the private sector than in government jobs.

More truth squad:

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Did Obama criticize Israel in U.N. address?

Do illegal immigrants get tuition discount?

Can you just sit around, collect unemployment?

Did Obama destroy the economy?

CNN's Katie Glaeser, Lindsey Knight and Matt Smith contributed to this report.

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