The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 17, 2012

Union membership gains a bit, but share is at historic low

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Unions gained a net of 49,000 members nationwide in 2011 over 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported January 27. The BLS said the union share of the U.S. workforce slipped slightly, down 0.1 percent – but was “essentially unchanged” – at 11.8 percent.

“It is telling that as our country begins to recover jobs lost during the Great Recession, good union jobs are beginning to come back,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.

The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.8 million in 2011, “also showed little movement over the year,” the BLS reported. “In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.”

About a third of all union workers in the U.S. were union in the 1950s. That number fell steadily,  and the losses were sharper in the years immediately after President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Union share has mostly been flat or falling since the early 1980s, and the 11.8 percent unionization share in 2010 is the lowest since the Great Depression.

The data show that the union advantage in wages widened, compared to non-union workers. In 2010, the median wage for union workers was $200 a week more than for non-unionists. In 2011, it increased to $209, with unionists’ weekly median income at $938.

BLS noted the union share among public workers (37 percent) was five times that of private sector workers (6.9 percent). Overall, unions had 400,000 more public sector workers than private sector workers. The construction industry had a 14 percent unionization rate last year.

More than half of union members are concentrated in seven states: California with 2.379 million, New York with 1.906 million, Illinois with 876,000, Pennsylvania with 779,000, Michigan with 671,000, Ohio with 647,000, and New Jersey 615,000.

The top five states in union membership penetration included: New York (24.1 percent), Alaska (22.1 percent), Hawaii (21.5 percent), Washington, (19.0 percent) followed by Michigan, at 17.5 percent, buoyed by hiring in an improving auto industry. Michigan’s unions added 44,000 members from 2010 to 2011 and its union share of the workforce rose by 1 percent.

Seven states had union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2011, with North Carolina having the lowest rate (2.9 percent). The next lowest rates were recorded in South Carolina (3.4 percent), Georgia

(3.9 percent), Arkansas (4.2 percent), Louisiana (4.5 percent), and Tennessee and Virginia (4.6 percent each).

“We may have reached a level where the union numbers simply can’t decline anymore, but if you’re not expanding, how can you call yourself a movement? said Gary Chaison, a labor professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., in an interview with the Union Resource Center. “Unions simply can’t make any gains in the private sector because it’s so expensive to organize. In the public sector, the layoffs of teachers and firefighters are really where the labor movement is hurting.”