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Unions suffer sharp decline in membership

Associated Press
January 23, 2013
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Union membership plummeted last year to the lowest level since the 1930s as cash-strapped state and local governments shed workers and unions had difficulty organizing new members in the private sector despite signs of an improving economy.

Government figures released Wednesday showed union membership declined from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent of the work force, another blow to a labor movement already stretched thin by battles in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other states to ensure fairness for non-union workers.

In Indiana, where a new right-to-work law took effect last March, the state lost about 56,000 union members. The law prohibits unions from requiring workers to pay union fees, even if they benefit from a collective bargaining agreement. Michigan lawmakers approved a similar measure in December.

Nationally, overall membership fell by about 400,000 workers, to 14.4 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half the loss, about 234,000, came from government workers, including teachers, firefighters and public administrators.

But unions also saw losses in the private sector even as the economy created 1.8 million new jobs in 2012. Private-sector membership rates fell from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent, a troubling sign for the future of organized labor, as job growth generally has taken place at non-union companies.

"To employers, it's going to look like the labor movement is ready for a knockout punch," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "You can't be a movement and get smaller."

Union membership was 13.2 percent in 1935 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. Labor's ranks peaked in the 1950s, when about 1 of every 3 workers was in a union. By 1983, roughly 20 percent of U.S. workers were union members.

Losses in the public sector are hitting unions particularly hard because that has been one of the few areas where membership had grown over the past two decades. About 51 percent of union members work in government, where the rate of union membership is 37 percent, which is more than five times higher than in the private sector.

Until recently, there had been little resistance to unions organizing government workers. But that began to change when Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin signed a law in 2011 eliminating most union rights for government workers. The state lost about 46,000 union members last year, the vast majority in the public sector.

The recession that began in 2008 also led to much deeper cuts in state and local government than any previous recession, according to a report this month from the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany. Since August 2008, state government employment has declined by 135,000, while local government employment fell by 546,000.

Despite the steady membership decline, unions remain a potent political force because of the money they spend helping union-friendly candidates seeking public office. Unions spent more than $400 million during the 2012 election cycle to support President Barack Obama's re-election, keep a Democratic majority in the Senate and aid other state and local candidates.

But as more governors and state lawmakers target unions, labor leaders have been forced to spend more money fighting political skirmishes and less on organizing new members.

"Organizing is very expensive, and it gets fought now in the public sector as well as in the private sector," said Barry Hirsch, a labor economist at Georgia State University.

Dwindling membership means unions carry far less influence than they used to in setting a benchmark for wages and benefits that might be followed at non-union companies. Unions are already gearing up to defeat Republican governors in Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where they fear more anti-union measures could crop up soon.

Union officials blame membership losses on the lingering effects of the recession, as well as GOP governors and state lawmakers who have sought to weaken union rights.

"Our still-struggling economy, weak laws and political as well as ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership, and in the process have also imperiled economic security and good, middle class jobs," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Another problem for unions is an aging membership that is not being replaced by younger members. By age, the union membership rate was highest among workers age 55 to 64 (14.9 percent) and lowest among those 16 to 24 (4.2 percent).

In New York, the state with the highest union density, nearly one-quarter of the workforce belonged to a union. North Carolina had the lowest at 2.9 percent.

Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members in 2012 had median weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members earned $742.

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  • Seriously?
    I remember when GM opened Saturn in Spring Hill. That was the official end of the Midwestern auto industry. It was in the 1980s...almost 30 years ago. Since then, auto plants have opened all over Mexico as well as the American South. Some of you still whine about quality, and yet these people make as good a car as you ever did, without union labor and for a fraction of the cost. You still don't get that YOU are the problem. You bet you were not replaceable. You were wrong. You were very replaceable and even now you still don't get it. You did it to yourselves. Back then, you blamed Japan. Now you blame Mitch, RTW, me and whoever else you think is responsible for your problems. It's you, 100% you. Your arrogance blinds you and I no longer feel sorry for you. There's a guy in Mexico that has less than you ever had who gets up every morning and builds quality for a fraction of what you think you're worth. If you want to work, swallow your pride and compete with him. If you're so good, you should be able to beat him. If you don't, shut up and wait for your government check. Either way, it's all on you. Not Japan. Not me. Not Mexico. Not the South. Not China. Not Mitch. Not RTW. You and you alone, Bro.
  • JOBS
    Where are these great jobs we were going to get for non union workers? Indiana's unemployment rate is not improving with these new laws
  • Death to the UNIONS
    The unions are becoming extinct and it cant happen fast enough. The faster states adopt right to work laws the faster our economic and manufacturing recovery can begin. Jeep is beginning manufacturing in China, just as Romney said they would and was lambasted as a liar, and only 35% of GM vehicles are made in the USA. Thats right! Stimulus for the unions to help companies survive that literally turned around and gave the taxpayer the finger. The unions must die so the US economy can live!!!
  • A foot shooting if I ever saw one...
    The more educated people become, the more they realize that unions: 1). can't protect them, and 2). don' get them anything they aren't already capable of getting through their own hard work. Detroit has hundreds of highly skilled jobs available that are unfilled because unions have lived in the past and coveted the "low information" worker. They really didn't foresee that employers would gladly pay good wages for people who wanted to work and didn't have the "us vs. them" mentality, fed to them by their union bosses. Notice how so many union members are old? They could show up from lunch drunk and high, and the union would keep them from being fired. If not, somehow it's management's fault. Once they're out of the work force and the younger workers take their places, union bosses will see that they really blew their toes off. Even now, Jimmy Hoffa Jr. is upbeat about organized labor's future with hotel maids, dishwashers and other similarly unskilled laborers. It would seem that those with an even modest education and some drive just don't need old Jimmy anymore. Good riddance.
  • don't work too hard....
    I can't tell you how many times I've heard the car union stories....and knew the person telling the story...about how some newby worked too hard, made too many good parts and got in trouble with the unions for it. it makes me sick that the unions have degraded their purpose and plyed a huge role in why American cars do not hold their value...produce bad work and get top dollar for it...why would BMW want to build cars and deal with a union that punishes a stron work ethic and rewards a bad one
  • Re: Terry
    Terry, You should do a little research on labor unions in other nations. Union membership is strong in Europe because they view themselves as being on the same team as management. Whereas, American unions believe they must fight against management. There is a reason that German companies like BMW work incredibly well with German labor unions, yet open factories in South Carolina to avoid American unions. Our unions have devolved into exactly what they were designed to fight: a top-down structure where those at the top use their power and influence to abuse the labor of those at the bottom. Our unions would rather put people out of work than accept a temporary pay cut (go look at how BMW and Mercedes worked with unions after the global financial collapse in 2008). If our unions cared about solidarity and equality within the workforce, they wouldn't be in such poor condition. Numerous companies have shown that they are more than willing to work with labor unions in other nations, but the same company will run to RTW states in the US to avoid our labor unions.
  • Full Circle
    It appears that we have come full circle as a nation. Like it or not, unions built the Middle Class in America. There are numerous points from both sides, but the one thing that is perfectly clear, workers will never again make $30.00 an hour to build a car. I have never been a member of a labor union but for the working class of the 60's, 70's, and 80's, those were the times that created the world's most powerful Middle Class. Most recently, I recall the closure of the GM Stamping Plant in Indianapolis. There was a proposed buyer, I believe it was a company from Illinois, and the owner of the company offered $15.00 per hour plus benefits to workers, which was a 50% reduction in pay. I recall that GM offered to make-up the difference for lost wages for a period of two years, and still the union voted "No Deal". Indianapolis lost approximately 250 jobs, workers who could have made over $40,000 per year in salary and benefits had nothing, and the union that voted "No" had a moral victory, so to speak. If you live in New York and work on Wall Street, or work for an insurance company, or work at a fast food restaurant, or one of dozens of service related businesses, I guess you can count yourself as a member of the Upper, Middle, and Lower Classes of America. America needs to start making things again, not just moving money around electronically, which is really all the wealthiest of Americans actually do each day. Healthcare is the new frontier for high school students. Older Americans are going to need doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, and technology folks who can operate sophisticated medical imaging systems, because the new market is "old and sick". The folks who bought all of the cars and trucks in the 60's, 70's, and 80's, no longer need the muscle car, they need power chairs and walkers. As for all of those high school students who miss out on college or technical school, they are looking at a minimum wage job, with no benefits, and a future without collective bargaining. The irony comes with the Chinese people seeking collective bargaining, fair wages, better working conditions, and forty-hour work weeks. Once again, America is leading the world, or at least offering a glimpse into the future.
    • Idyllic's Right
      Now that the unions are cooked, it's time to move on to the next greatest threat to our civilization: We must do something to stop gays from threatening marriage. How many more divorces can we expect Newt Gingrich to endure?
    • If only...
      ...we could get rid of the last few pesky surviving unions, we could save corporations and taxpayers a few more dollars per week, and we'd really get this economic recovery in high gear.

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    1. Those of you yelling to deport them all should at least understand that the law allows minors (if not from a bordering country) to argue for asylum. If you don't like the law, you can petition Congress to change it. But you can't blindly scream that they all need to be deported now, unless you want your government to just decide which laws to follow and which to ignore.

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