The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 22, 2013

U.S. union membership sinks to historic low

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON – More bad news for the nation’s labor movement.

The union membership rate in the U.S. – the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union – dropped from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported on Jan. 23. It’s the lowest unionization level in the U.S. since the 1930s.

The drop of 400,000 union members from 2011 to 2012 places union membership ranks at 14.4 million. Labor’s high water mark was when about one third of workers were represented by a union in the 1950s. There have been a few small spikes upward, but the nation’s unionization rate has trended steadily downward since the 1970s – and a precipitous decline began after President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

BLS analyst Jim Walker told Press Associates Union News Service the decline in union density reflects the changing nature of the economy.  He said the survey that produces the union data also generates the monthly employment and jobless numbers.  It has shown a consistent long-term shift away from construction and manufacturing jobs. The gains have come in the form of service jobs, many in less union-dense industries, such as finance, insurance and real estate.

Michigan’s unionization rate ranking dropped from fifth to seventh place among the states: 17.5 percent in 2011 down to 16.6 percent in 2012. Our state lost 42,000 union jobs, falling to 629,000 in 2012. Even before Michigan became a right-to-work state in December , it accounted for about 10 percent of the nation’s loss of unionized workers.

In a prepared statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is it has become more difficult for them to have one. 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,” he continued.

Then he pivoted to the positive, saying unions “understand these challenges offer real opportunities…to reshape the future.”  He cited coalitions that workers are building in communities, with young people and immigrants and in fights against Right Wingers.  He also claimed workers are “organizing in innovative ways” to create “a new movement for the future and to creating good jobs and an economy that works for all.”

BLS calculated about half of all union members lived in seven states: California, (2.49 million), New York (1.841 million), Illinois (801,000), Pennsylvania (734,000), Michigan (629,000), New Jersey (611,000), and Ohio (604,000).  Numbers and density declined in all those states except New Jersey, where density was unchanged.

The numbers also showed:

  • Michigan accounted for about 10 percent of the nation’s loss of unionized workers.
  • One of every seven U.S. construction workers was unionized (13.2 percent) in 2012, down from 14.0 percent in 2011.
  • There were two notable union membership increases in traditionally union-weak areas, the BLS calculated: A 1.1 percent increase in Kentucky, to 10 percent, and a 65,000-person, 0.5 percent rise, to 5.7 percent density, in Texas.  Texas is still among the least-unionized states.
  • Among states, New York continued to have the highest union membership rate (23.2 percent), and North Carolina again had the lowest rate (2.9 percent).
  • Private sector union members are becoming a vanishing breed. In the private sector, 6.6 percent are unionized, down from 6.9 percent in 2011. Among public sector workers, 35.9 percent are in a union
  • In 2012, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $742.