- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Union membership dropped to a 60-year low in 2000, a trend labor leaders fear could worsen under the Bush administration.
The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell to 13.5 percent or 16.3 million workers in 2000, from 13.9 percent in 1999, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
More factory jobs, which have the greatest union membership, are moving overseas, while financial services and high-tech fields where unions have a small presence are becoming the bulwark of the U.S. economy.
In response to the membership decline, the AFL-CIO's executive council has adopted a new recruitment plan with a goal of 1 million new members a year. The AFL-CIO is the umbrella organization for 68 major labor unions nationwide. Labor organizers plan to boost information exchange between member unions and redouble their efforts toward recruitment.
"Growth is absolutely essential if we're going to accomplish the things we want to accomplish," said Mark Splain, the AFL-CIO's organizing director. "It really is the first priority of the federation."
He said unions do not expect much support from the Bush administration.
"There's nothing in George Bush's history that would suggest he's likely to make a strong effort for the right to organize," Mr. Splain said. "We will remain vigilant."
Labor's vigorous support for former Vice President Al Gore nearly cost Mr. Bush the presidential election.
Unions organized telephone campaigns in heavily Democratic districts to encourage their members to vote. Employees at auto manufacturing plants were given time off work to vote, which helped tip Michigan into Mr. Gore's win column. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney made a nationwide bus tour of Democratic states, visiting union job sites to encourage workers to vote.
Ironically, the recent downturn in the economy offers unions their best hope in years for reaching their goal. The Internet dot-coms that propelled the U.S. economy to record growth in recent years stagnated and began a downward slide last spring. They are dragging down with them many of the high-tech specialists and financial services employees who supported them.
Those same employees now are worried about holding on to their jobs to the same extent as other workers, union representatives said.
"There are changes happening in that sector, and the workers look to unions for job security and protection on a whole range of issues," Mr. Splain said.
A high-profile example is the union-organizing effort at on-line retailer Amazon.com. Customer service representatives and warehouse employees are distributing petitions to gather support for unions to represent them.
"We're just building an organizing campaign there," said Jeff Miller, Communications Workers of America spokesman. "It's probably going to be a fairly long-term project."
He agreed that the work force changes occurring at Amazon.com are typical of changes throughout the economy.
"In recent months, a lot of people at the dot-coms are beginning to realize that things aren't as rosy as they thought," Mr. Miller said. "They don't have the security and rights and loyalty coming back to them from their employers that they thought was there. I think it has shaken up a lot of people in the high-tech fields."
He noted unions might have hurt their chances with the new presidential administration because of their support for Mr. Gore.
"We were on the other side," Mr. Miller said. "We're prepared to be conciliatory and we hope President Bush is as well."
Union leaders said the only way they can retain their influence is by changing with the work force. About the only industries where they still can muster strong leverage are auto, aviation and steel manufacturing. As many of those jobs shift overseas where production costs are lower, union ranks are dropping from layoffs and early retirements.
Mr. Sweeney said unions would need to add a half-million new members each year to stay even with drops in their numbers and 1 million each year to sustain growth. Last year, the AFL-CIO spearheaded campaigns that brought in 400,000 new members, compared with fewer than 100,000 in 1995, the year Mr. Sweeney took over as the federation's president.
By contrast, 20.1 percent of the nation's work force was unionized in 1983 and 35 percent in the 1950s.
Other new information reported for 2000 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week included:
* Nearly four in 10 government workers were union members, compared with fewer than one in 10 private sector employees.
* Protective service workers a group that includes police officers and firefighters had the highest unionization rate, at 39.4 percent.
* Blacks were more likely than either whites or Hispanics to be union members.


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