American Union Ranks Grow After 'Bottoming Out'

Percentage of total employed wage and salary workers who are union members
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

The percentage of American workers belonging to a union jumped in 2008, the first statistically significant increase in the 25 years that the figure has been reported, reversing a long decline in union membership.

In 2008, union members represented 12.4 percent of employed workers, up from 12.1 percent a year earlier, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued yesterday. Union membership had been falling since the 1950s, when members constituted as much as a third of the U.S. workforce.

"We saw what looked like a bottoming out last year, and this suggests that we might have turned the corner," said John Schmitt, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The new report comes as interest is growing in Congress to revive legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions. Both sides cited the new data to bolster their arguments for and against the so-called "card check" bill, which would allow unions to form when more than half of a company's employees sign cards in support.

The number of workers belonging to a union rose about 428,000, to 16.1 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To business groups opposing card check, that jump indicates that the government doesn't need to make it easier to form unions.

"These statistics show that union membership is growing -- and that the system works," said Keith Smith, director of employment and labor policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

"Organized labor is running ads claiming that current labor laws prevent them from signing up new members. Too bad the facts aren't cooperating," U.S. Chamber of Commerce chief legal officer Steven Law blogged yesterday.

Union officials instead focused attention on the fact that the gains in unionization were largely achieved by federal, state and city government workers -- and not at private companies.

Labor advocates said this shows private employers have been successful in intimidating employees and blocking the formation of unions.

Indeed, the rates of unionization between the private and public sector are starkly different. According to the new federal information, 7.6 percent of private-sector employees belong to a union, while about 37 percent of government employees do.

Roughly 275,000 of the union-member surge -- about two-thirds last year's gain -- came from the public sector, according to the new federal statistics. Union gains in the private sector, by contrast, were meager.

The disparity between private and government employees "is due to the fact that private employers retaliate against workers who are trying to form unions," said Stewart Acuff, special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions.

The strength of the gains in the public sector and other data show that "it's very clear that more and more workers want to form unions and that they'll go to great lengths to form them," he said.

But Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the ranking member of the subcommittee that will oversee any card-check bill, said he thinks the union gains in the public sector stem from the Democratic leanings of local governments.

"If you look at many of your large city governments, they are heavily from the Democratic Party," Kline said. "There are strong ties between big union leadership and the Democratic Party."

The recession also apparently played a role in the rate of workforce unionization: The number of employed shrunk, and the job losses had a disproportionate effect on nonunionized workers.

"Part of what I think is happening is that the economy is shrinking but union jobs are not being shed because they have union contracts," said Jim Walker, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics who worked on the new figures.

Last year, the bureau reported that the rate of union membership went from 12 percent to 12.1 percent, a change that economists said was too small to be statistically significant. This year's increase is statistically significant, they said.

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