Government Workers Lead Drop in U.S. Union Rate

Labor unions lost ground among government workers in 2012 as Republican-led efforts curtailed collective bargaining rights in several U.S. cities and states, and total union membership fell to a record low.

Labor unions represented 35.9 percent of government employees, down from 37 percent in 2011, according to data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A record low 11.3 percent of all U.S. workers were union members, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, the government said.

“Public employment has become the heart of the American labor movement,” Gary Chaison, a labor professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said today in an interview. Still, “in two or three years, most cities in the U.S. with over a million population will be considering bankruptcy just to escape pension obligations. Every large city will be a Detroit, every smaller city will be Stockton, California.”

Public workers are fighting political leaders in states such as Wisconsin where Republican Governor Scott Walker supported legislation in 2011 curbing the bargaining rights of some government unions. The law sparked protests at the state Capitol and a 2012 recall election, in which Walker turned back a challenge from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat.

Last year, voters in San Diego and San Jose, California, also approved ballot measures to restructure benefits for municipal workers after the cities said they couldn’t afford them. States including Indiana and Ohio took steps to limit the bargaining rights public employees. Michigan, birthplace of the United Auto Workers union, last month became the 24th state to prohibit compulsory union dues for employees in organized workplaces.

Declining Membership

Unions in 2012 represented 6.6 percent of workers in private companies, down from 6.9 percent in 2011, according to the data. Total union membership fell to 14.4 million last year -- down from 14.7 million a year earlier -- with 7.3 million in public jobs and 7 million at private companies.

Since 2002, the rate of union membership in the private sector has fallen in every year, except 2007 and 2008, from 8.6 percent, according to Labor Department data. Membership among public-sector workers increased four times during that period, peaking at 37.4 percent in 2009.

“This has been a year of calamities for the labor movement,” Chaison said. “American workers feel as if the contract between them and their employers doesn’t work any more, but they’re not turning to unions.”

‘Ideological Assaults’

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, which includes the American Federation of Government Employees among its member unions, blamed a struggling economy, weak legal protections and “ideological assaults” for the decline. The trend threatens overall economic security and good-paying, middle class jobs, he said.

“Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one, as today’s figures on union membership demonstrate,” Trumka said in a statement. “We enter 2013 with our eyes open and understand that these challenges offer real opportunities for working people to reshape the future.”

Economic headwinds that thwarted growth in manufacturing jobs continue to erode union participation, said William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO. In states where economic activity is expanding, such as Nevada, Louisiana and Texas, union membership is rising, according to today’s report.

Texas, Kentucky

“It’s going up in Texas, which is a right-to-work state,” Spriggs said in an interview. “It’s going up in Louisiana, which has a very anti-union governor. It’s going up in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky. These are Republican states. The union movement I think when you look underneath the numbers, is showing great strength.”

The AFL-CIO analysis ignores shortcomings in organizing and recruiting, Chaison said. Even when accounting for the impacts of globalization and unemployment, it should be easier for unions to demonstrate their relevancy to workers in tough economic times, he said.

“There’s no way the unions can put a positive spin on this,” Chaison said. “They have not invested in the manpower or the funds in organizing new members. They haven’t taken the risks. What the membership losses signify is that they’re not able to market themselves appropriately in hard times.”

Education, Libraries

Workers in education, training and library occupations had the highest unionization rate, the Labor Department said. Among states, New York led the nation again with 23.2 percent of workers in a union, down from 24 percent in 2011, and North Carolina had the lowest, at 2.9 percent.

The report also showed the average weekly earnings of union workers was $938, while non-union workers were paid $729.

In 1983, the first year the agency collected the data, 20.1 percent of the U.S. workforce and 16.8 percent of company workers were members of a union.

“It’s a mixed story because the older part of the economy is still suffering greatly and the public sector is still suffering greatly,” Spriggs said. “What the numbers show is that there has to be a great emphasis on organizing manufacturing workers.”