Union membership slips after anti-labor attacks

January 25, 2013

The percentage of American workers in labor unions took an unusually large fall in 2012, dropping to 11.3 percent last year from 11.8 percent in 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced.

The total number of union members also took an unusually big drop, by 400,000, to 14.3 million, even though overall employment in the U.S. rose by 2.4 million last year, the BLS reports. From 2010 to 2011, the number grew by 50,000, and the percentage of unionized workers fell only 0.1 percentage point.

The declines came during a period when labor unions have been on the defensive. Wisconsin enacted a law in 2011 that curbed the collective bargaining rights of most of the state’s government employees, while Indiana and Michigan passed “right to work” laws last year that are likely to encourage more private-sector workers to drop their union membership so they do not have to pay union dues or fees.

Some say the move in Michigan could embolden more states to pass similar legislation, further threatening the nation’s once-strong labor union movement.

In recent months, however, there has been an uptick in union activity among nonunion workers, as evidenced by labor protests at Walmart stores across the nation and a one-day strike by fast-food workers in New York City in November.

In those job actions, the workers were protesting what they said were low wages and meager benefits. But union officials acknowledge that it is often hard, in the face of intense employer resistance and employee fears of layoffs, to persuade a majority of workers at a big-box store or other workplaces to vote to unionize.

Richard L. Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, responded to the labor report in a statement, saying, “Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one, as today’s figures on union membership demonstrate.”

“Union membership impacts every other economic outcome that matters to all workers – falling wages, rising health care costs, home foreclosures, the loss of manufacturing jobs and disappearing retirement benefits. Collective action through unions remains the single best way for working people to effect change. But 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.”

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

The BLS said union membership for private-sector workers dropped to 6.6 last year, from 6.9 percent in 2011, a drop that has caused some labor leaders to voice fears that unions were steadily fading into irrelevance for many large employers.

The bureau said union membership among public-sector employees fell to 35.9 percent in 2012, from 37 percent the previous year, and there were more union members in the public sector – 7.3 million – than in the private sector, 7 million.

The number of union members is down from 17.7 million in 1983, the first year for which comparable numbers are available, when 20.1 percent of the nation’s workers belonged to labor unions.

Among states, North Carolina had the lowest unionization rate, 2.9 percent, followed by Arkansas at 3.2 percent and South Carolina at 3.3 percent. New York had the highest rate, 23.2 percent, followed by Alaska at 22.4 percent and Hawaii at 21.6 percent.