The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) just announced that labor union density held steady in 2009, with 12.3 percent of American workers belonging to unions compared to 12.4 percent in 2008. This came on the heels of two successive years of modest increases in the percentage of unionized employees.
These numbers, however, mask significant warning signs for organized labor.
Private Sector Unionization Shrinking
The real story behind the 2009 numbers comes in the split between private and public sector unionization rates. Private sector union density dropped to 7.2 percent compared to 7.6 percent in 2008.
The share of unionized private sector employees is miniscule, and it should surprise no one that millions of workers in retail, food service, health care, and other fields toil at low pay with minimal benefits, if at all.
Public Sector Claims Larger Share, But…
New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse noted that “(f)or the first time in American history, a majority of union members are government workers rather than private-sector employees.” He added that this development now dispels “the longstanding notion that union members are overwhelmingly blue-collar factory workers.”
As I see it, this does not mean that the public sector is becoming a beachhead of strength for the labor movement. First, this reversal is in part due to the loss of manufacturing and construction jobs in the private sector, not solely because of an upsurge in union activism in the public sector.
Secondly, although federal government hiring has been strong during the past year, the job situation in state and local governments is far less rosy. State budgets across the nation are in peril due to continuing fallout in the economy. Because government jobs are dependent upon tax revenues, layoffs in the public sector tend to follow layoffs in the private sector. It is very possible that with so many state budgets in meltdown mode, a good number of unionized state and local government jobs will follow.
Employee Free Choice Act
It is unlikely that labor law reform will come to the rescue anytime soon. If enacted, the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would facilitate union membership and collective bargaining and buoy union organizing efforts. However, even before the Massachusetts Senate election last Tuesday broke the Democrats’ 60-40 majority in the Senate, employer opposition to EFCA, the battle over health care, and the overall state of the economy were combining to weaken its chances of passage.
Voices for Workers
I can only reiterate the importance of a strong, inclusive, active labor movement as a voice for workers. In the DOL news release, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis reminded us of the union wage and benefit advantage:
The data also show the median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary union members were $908 per week, compared to $710 for workers not represented by unions. Union members earn 28 percent more than their non-union counterparts.
When coupled with data showing that union members have access to better health care, retirement and leave benefits, these numbers make it clear that union jobs are good jobs.
We need to find ways to facilitate unionization and to persuade the millions of workers in low-paid positions that unionization is one of the best ways to create good jobs at good wages.
DOL News Release on Union Membership: http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/opa/opa20100105.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics Report on Union Membership: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm
Steven Greenhouse’s article on public sector union membership: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/23/business/23labor.html
[Additional note — Labor activist and writer Steve Early weighs in on labor’s challenges in this Jan. 29 piece from the Boston Globe: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/01/29/labor_needs_a_new_survival_plan/]