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Union membership at lowest point since 1930s

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Business groups have long complained that the Obama administration is "labor-friendly," but union membership actually has declined over the last four years to its lowest point since the 1930s.

The number of union workers fell by nearly 400,000 in 2012 compared to 2011, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Wednesday.

The number of Americans represented by a union dropped from 14.8 to 14.4 million Americans during that same period. Currently, 11.3 percent of all U.S. workers belong to a union.

That amounts to "a significant number of workers," said Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Jim Walker.

It's been a downhill battle for the labor community. Union membership has fallen by 3.3 million workers over the last three decades, even as more employees join the workforce, and about half of those losses have come under the Obama administration.

Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, suggested this report raises "serious questions about the health of the labor movement in America."

"The continued decline of union membership, even during four years of a labor-friendly administration, is a sign that organized labor is no longer serving the best interests of its members," he said.

But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka blamed "right-wing politicians" for their "political as well as ideological assaults that have taken a toll on union membership."

"Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today," he said in a statement, "but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one."

This decline comes as the labor community has been losing the right-to-work battle. Twenty-four states have laws that allow employees to opt out of union membership.

In 2012, Michigan and Indiana became the most recent states to pass such laws, and many more are considering similar legislation.

"The right-to-work movement is growing," said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute. "There are more and more states that are making union membership optional, so of course their membership is going to fall. They're definitely losing the battle, but they're not giving up."

Mr. Berman agreed that unions are weakening.

"I think they're becoming irrelevant," Mr. Berman said. "There will always be a union movement, because there will always be a business that treats its workers so badly they collectively organize to form a union. But I do believe it's becoming less and less of a need for the workforce."

In the labor community, public-sector workers have a 35.9 percent union membership rate, compared to the 6.6 percent of private-sector workers who unionize.

Local government employees, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters, tend to be the most likely to unionize, which could explain some of the declines. That group has a 41.7 percent union membership rate.

"We've seen layoffs in the public sector, which is very heavily unionized," Mr. Walker said.

In the private sector, manufacturing, construction, transportation and utility workers are most likely to unionize with a membership rate of 20.6 percent.

"But remember that's also during the time of the recession, and it hit manufacturing and construction pretty hard, which were heavily unionized," Mr. Walker added.

Older workers, ages 55 to 64, are more likely to unionize (14.9 percent) than younger workers (4.2 percent).

Black workers are more likely to join a union (13.4 percent) than other ethnicities. Mr. Walker suggested this is because more blacks are employed in the public sector, and the government places a greater emphasis on employment equality.

"The government often has initiatives to reach out to all kinds of people to employ them," he said. "They try to reach out to all groups to hire in the government."

On the other hand, in the private sector the agriculture industry has the lowest level of union membership at 1.4 percent of workers, followed closely by the financial industry at 1.9 percent.

New York has the highest union membership rate among states at 23.2 percent, while North Carolina has the lowest rate at 2.9 percent.

Unionized workers make on average $943 a week, compared to $742 for nonunion workers.

"For the most part, there's not a lot of union organizing going on anymore," Mr. Berman said. "They're spending more time servicing their existing membership, and not spending as much time trying to get new members. I believe that the unions understand that there aren't as many people who want to join. People don't think of unions as favorably as they used to."

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