Union Membership in the U.S. Takes Another Big Hit In 2012, At 76-Year Low

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Opponents of labor union membership in the United States had a very successful couple of years during 2011 and 2012.

Union membership nationwide reached a 76-year record low, during 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Jan. 23, 2013.

Public employees like firefighters often have strong union membership
Public employees like firefighters often have strong union membership. Photo: U.S. Census Bureau

In 2012, the union membership rate — the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union — was 11.3%, down about 400,000 jobs from 11.8% in 2011, according to the BLS.

The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.4 million, also declined during 2012.

Almost half union job losses were in the Midwest — Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan — states with Republican-led governments that waged legislative wars on unions.

Indiana passed a “right-to-work” law in February 2012 making union dues voluntary.

In 2011, Wisconsin passed severe restrictions on public sector unions. But the laws were blocked by the courts for part of 2012. Meanwhile, Ohio passed curbs on public sector unions in 2011. Those laws were overturned by a voter referendum the same year.

Michigan, a union stronghold state, recently passed a right-to-work law that has yet to take effect.

Professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois Robert Bruno, told Reuters that a growing number of laws that make labor organizing workers more difficult are part of the reason for “an incremental erosion” of the labor movement.

“It goes back a couple of decades, that there has been a growing number of anti-labor policies,” Bruno told Reuters. “We have the weakest labor law and enforcement of labor law in the entire Western industrialized world.

However, the new BLS data also shows that union members continue to have substantially higher average wages and better benefits than workers who are not union members.

“The data also show… union members have higher median weekly earnings than nonunion workers,” said Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris. “The median weekly earnings of union members were $943, compared to $742 for nonunion workers.

“Other data have shown that union members have greater access to employment-based benefits such as health insurance, a retirement savings plan, and sick and vacation leave,” Harris said. “Together, strong wages and benefits are good for workers and good for families.”

“Union jobs are good jobs,” Harris said. “They are essential to growing and maintaining a strong middle class, which is vital to the economic health of this country.”

“It is critical that we continue to ensure all people have a voice in the workplace, and protect the right to organize and bargain collectively,” he said.

In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1%. There were 17.7 million union workers in the U.S. 1983.

The data on union membership were collected as part of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 households that obtains information on employment and unemployment among the nation’s civilian non-institutional population ages 16 and over.

“Collective action through unions remains the single best way for working people to effect change,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in reaction to the BLS data. “But 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”

“What will define the labor movement of the future, however, is not assaults or the changing economy, but how working people come together to respond to them,” Trumka said. “We enter 2013 with our eyes open and understand that these challenges offer real opportunities for working people to reshape the future.”

Highlights from the 2012 union membership data:

–Public sector workers had a union membership rate, 35.9%, more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers, 6.6%.

–Workers in education, training, and library occupations and in protective service occupations had the highest unionization rates, at 35.4% and 34.8%, respectively.

–Black workers were more likely to be union members than were white, Asian, or Hispanic workers.

–Among states, New York continued to have the highest union membership rate, 23.2%, and North Carolina again had the lowest rate, 2.9%.

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