Union Membership Up Slightly in 2007

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008

Union membership in the United States rose last year by 311,000, rare growth for the beleaguered labor movement.

Although unions have strengthened their organizing efforts in the past few years, with large-scale campaigns targeting workers in the growing service sector, the Labor Department reported yesterday that unions represent only 12.1 percent of the nation's workforce of 129 million, up slightly from 12 percent in 2006. In 1983, 20 percent of U.S. workers were union members.

Much of last year's growth came in the West. California's rate of union membership rose one percentage point, to 16.7 percent, an increase of more than 200,000 members. Nevada showed an increase of 15,000 union members, reflecting the organization of casino and construction workers.

In the Midwest, manufacturing job losses reduced union membership. Michigan lost 23,000 union members. The largest decrease came in Illinois, where union rolls dropped 89,000. Ben Zipperer, research associate at the Center for Economic Policy Research, said the manufacturing sector -- long the stronghold of U.S. unions -- is being supplanted by the construction and private health-care fields, where union membership is growing.

The 311,000 growth in union membership last year was the biggest annual gain since the government began collecting such data in 1983.

Randel K. Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called the reported growth the result of a "rounding error."

"This is a very slight, marginal increase," Johnson said. "For all the talk of organized labor putting more and more resources into organizing, this bump is insignificant."

Though union leaders were heartened by the increase, they said they are still confronting heavy odds.

They said organizing laws are skewed toward business and should be changed. Unions are campaigning to elect a Democratic president to help push their agenda.

"I don't think the number means we've turned the corner," said Tom Woodruff, executive vice president in charge of organizing at the Service Employees International Union. "I think its significant the labor movement is growing. But it's not nearly enough."

AFL-CIO national organizing director Stewart Acuff said unions are organizing "against a backdrop of unparalleled intimidation and retaliation" that makes future growth difficult.

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