Union membership in U.S. falls to lowest percentage in 76 years

United States has ‘weakest labour law’ in industrialized world: Professor
By James B. Kelleher, Lisa Lambert and Bernie Woodall
|labour-reporter.com|Last Updated: 01/31/2013

(Reuters) — The percentage of workers belonging to unions tumbled to 11.3 per cent in 2012, the lowest percentage in 76 years, led by dramatic declines in states where lawmakers have put organized labour in the political crosshairs, government figures showed on Jan. 23.

The total number of union members fell by nearly 400,000, or 0.5 percentage points, from 11.8 per cent of the workforce in 2011, the United States Department of Labor report on union membership said. The rate of 11.3 per cent of the workforce was the lowest since 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt was president.

Almost one-half the losses in the last year were in the industrial Midwest — Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan — where states with Republican-led governments have led an assault on unions.

Indiana passed a so-called "right-to-work" law in February 2012, making payment of union dues voluntary for workers. Wisconsin passed severe restrictions on public sector unions in 2011, but they were blocked by the courts for part of 2012.

Ohio also passed curbs on public sector unions in 2011, but they were overturned by referendum the same year. Michigan last month passed a right-to-work law that has not yet taken effect.

Robert Bruno, professor of labour relations at the University of Illinois, said a growing number of laws that make organizing workers more difficult were part of the reason for "an incremental erosion" of the labour movement.

"It goes back a couple of decades, that there has been a growing number of anti-labour policies," Bruno said. "We have the weakest labour law and enforcement of labour law in the entire Western industrialized world," he said.

Some of the most brutal fights over collective bargaining have taken place at the state level. A federal appeals court on Jan. 18 upheld a controversial Wisconsin law restricting the power of public-sector unions.

Last year, organized labour also suffered big membership losses in states considered union strongholds and controlled by Democrats, including Illinois and New York. Lawmakers grappling with public employee pension crises and sharp drops in tax revenue have sought concessions from public workers.

"It reflects a number of things beyond labour's control, such as the state of the economy," said Harley Shaiken, labour relations professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

"It used to be big labour and big business. Now we have small labour and big business," he said.

On the other hand, unions made strong gains in traditionally weak states for organized labour, including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma and even Texas, due to booming local economies.

Some analysts blame unions for the drop. Membership has been falling since 2008, when it was 16.1 million, or 12.4 per cent of the workforce, federal data shows. It peaked in 1954, when 28.3 per cent of workers were represented by organized labour.

"They must now admit that they are not investing enough staff and funds in organizing and not embarking on an imaginative journey to rediscover the relevancy of unions," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University. "Essentially, workers are feeling tremendous job insecurity... Yet as today's figures suggest, workers are not turning to unions to act as their voice."

The report also showed full-time unionized workers had median weekly earnings of $943, 27 per cent more than the $742 of those whose pay was not collectively bargained.

The activist group Center for Union Facts, which is critical of the labour movement, said unions have made salary and benefit demands that have hurt the budgets of corporations and the public sector.

Slow recovery

Slow recovery from the 2007-09 recession has hurt revenues of state and local governments, forcing them to eliminate jobs and to cover the swelling costs of healthcare and pensions by cutting spending in other areas.

"It's not a secret that some politicians chose to cut public education funding, balance the budgets on the backs of students and slash the education workforce," Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a 3-million-member union, said in a statement on the report.

In 2012, public sector unions lost 234,000 members. Nearly 80 per cent of that decline was in organizations representing local government workers, primarily teachers. More than a third, 35.9 per cent, of public-sector workers belonged to unions, compared with just 6.6 per cent of those in the private sector.

From December 2007, near the start of the recession, to December 2012, state and local governments shed 489,000 jobs.

"That's a highly unionized sector and we know the public sector has been doing poorly in this recovery," said William Briggs, chief economist for the largest U.S. union, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and former undersecretary at the U.S. Labor Department. "The weakness isn't just a union story. It's a story about the economy not functioning the way we hope it would."

He noted the age group with the lowest membership rate — only 4.2 per cent for workers aged 16 to 24, compared with 14.9 per cent for those aged 55 to 64 — was also the one struggling most to find full-time jobs.

Black workers had the highest union membership rate, at 13.4 per cent, followed by whites at 11.1 per cent, Hispanics at 9.8 per cent and Asians at 9.6 per cent. Black men alone had a rate of 14.8 per cent, as African-American women mostly hold public jobs, Briggs said.

Women made up 57 per cent of the public sector workforce in 2012 and accounted for 72 per cent of the union membership decline, the National Women's Law Center said.

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