The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 03, 2006

Steady as she goes for U.S. union membership

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

WASHINGTON (PAI) - Union membership held steady at 12.5 percent in 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Jan. 20.

BLS said the nation had 15.685 million unionists last year, the same percentage as 2005, but 213,000 more in numbers. The bureau also said almost 1.5 million more people were represented by unions, but were not members.

The flat percentage is a small victory for the U.S. union movement, which has been in steady decline since the early 1980s. "In a political climate that's hostile to worker's rights," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, "these numbers illustrate the extraordinary will of workers to gain a voice on the job despite enormous obstacles."

Just over half, 7.9 million, of all U.S. union members lived in six states. Among them, five states had union membership rates over 20 percent in 2005: New York (26.1 percent), Hawaii (25.8 percent), Alaska (22.8 percent), and Michigan and New Jersey (20.5 percent each).

Teamsters President James Hoffa cited those figures on union concentration as a reason unions must organize and grow.

"A worker's right to a union has continually been eroded by a corporate takeover of our government," he said. "The labor movement must change if it is to remain relevant to workers under constant assault who want economic and job security. The 2004 presidential election was a painful lesson that all the money and mobilizing in the world are not enough to make a difference when you have too few members."

Five states reported union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2005. South Carolina and North Carolina continued to record the lowest union membership rates, 2.3 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively. Arkansas and Virginia had the next lowest union membership rates in 2005, 4.8 percent each, followed closely by Utah, at 4.9 percent.

The membership numbers for construction industry were not rosy. According to the BLS, U.S. construction union membership dropped from 14.7 percent in 2004 to 13.1 percent last year. More than 1.1 million construction workers in the U.S. are represented by unions.

BLS also reported that unionists had a substantial advantage in wages over their non-union colleagues in the same occupations. The median weekly wage for unionists was $801 last year. For non-unionists, it was $622.

Union membership has steadily declined from its peak in the 1950s. For a more modern yardstick, BLS figures, using "comparable union data," said the nation's workforce was 20.1 unionized in 1983.