- Associated Press - Sunday, March 2, 2014

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - Once a mighty labor union town, Muncie now has more police officers and office workers in organized labor than welders and auto workers.

With the closing of Muncie’s last two big auto industry plants - and union strongholds - now several years back in the rear view mirror, can Muncie ever recover its footing as a labor-friendly town?

And should it?

New figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that union membership is half what it was a generation ago. And much of the modern-day organized labor force can be found in government jobs and not in the private sector.

Mike Jones, a former official for United Auto Workers Local 499 - which represented workers at Chevrolet and its successors - said a lot has been lost locally with the loss of unions.

“With labor unions, workers have the right to earn a higher wage rate and a better benefits package,” Jones told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1ms9kHc ). “As a result, the workers would spend more available money than the current workforce has to dispose of. That keeps restaurants open and retail outlets open and cars selling and the whole nine yards.

“When higher-paying jobs are present, it raises the local economy,” Jones added. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

But Michael Hicks, a Ball State University economist, said that while organizations representing the interests of workers in the workplace are a good thing, the “one size fits all” approach of labor unions was counter-productive.

“Private sector labor unions have been failing at a remarkable rate,” Hicks said. “At a time when manufacturing employment is strong or stabilized, their membership is plummeting.”

Union membership in 2013 was about 11.3 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s unchanged since 2012. So is the number of workers who belong to unions: 14.5 million.

But union membership is much smaller than it once was. In 1983, when the government began keeping track, union membership was 20.1 percent of the workforce and 17.7 million people were union workers.

The flip-flop in who’s part of a union is dramatic. Public-sector workers, like those in government jobs, had a union membership rate of 35 percent compared to 6.7 percent for private-sector workers.

The modern-day union battleground has been playing out in two cities in Tennessee.

In Memphis, workers at a Kellogg plant where Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops are made have been locked out for months pending ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement. Kellogg says labor - at $28 an hour, and workers don’t have to pay for their own health insurance - is too expensive and wants to expand its hiring of non-union workers who would make $6 less an hour, according to the New York Times. Workers fear their employer is trying to oust them and replace them with cheaper labor.

While the Memphis lock-out has been low-profile, the recent failure of workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga to vote in sufficient numbers to join the United Auto Workers was seen, by some, as a huge loss for labor. After all, the company itself had been agreeable to the labor organizing attempt. But virtually on the eve of the vote, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said publicly that if workers voted no, VW would expand operations at the plant. (VW denied that.)

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