To help economy recover, join a union

Rise in union membership reported

The Labor Department reported Jan. 29 that the number of union members increased by 428,000 in 2008, hiking the total increase in union membership to 750,000 in the last two years.

The percentage of workers who belong to unions also rose from 12 percent in 2006 to 12.4 percent in 2008. The Bureau of Labor statistics described the growth in union membership as “statistically significant.”

Jason Lefkowitz, a spokesman for the Change To Win federation said the news was good, particularly because the gains were made against a backdrop of severe job losses and difficult conditions for those trying to organize unions.

All the nation’s unions are backing the Employee Free Choice Act which, if it becomes law, will make it much easier for workers to join unions. Employers would have to recognize unions as soon as a majority of workers sign authorization cards. Workers would be able to avoid the long, drawn-out company –controlled elections during which employers routinely harass, intimidate and even fire union backers.

Leading figures inside and outside the labor movement see both the growth in union membership and employee free choice as critical to rescuing the sinking economy. The Department of Labor reports that workers in unions earn 30 percent higher wages, taking home $863 a week, compared with $663 for the typical nonunion worker, and are 59 percent more likely to have employer-based health insurance than their non-union counterparts.

“The way to get the economy back on track is to boost the purchasing power of the middle class. The way to do this is to expand the percentage of working Americans in unions,” said Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. “Working families aren’t asking for a bailout or a handout, but they need, and deserve, to have a share of the prosperity they are creating. They need a level playing field and the freedom to bargain for a better life,” Reich added.

Lefkowitz warned, however, that despite the good news regarding growth in union membership, “We still have a lot of work ahead of us to rebuild the power of workers in the United States. When the BLS first started gathering data in 1983, 20 percent of the workers were in unions. If we pass employee free choice we can really build on the gains of the last two years.”

Another cause for concern, he said, is that while the percentage of organized workers grew in 26 states and Washington D.C., it declined in all but one of the rest. Another concern for the labor movement is that half the nation’s union members are still in just six states: California (2.74 million), New York (2.03 million), Illinois (939,000), Pennsylvania (847,000), Michigan (771,000) and Ohio (716,000). Those states, according to the BLS, have only one-third of the nation’s workers.

Another problem is the age of union members: The highest shares of unionization by age were among workers aged 55-64 and 45-54, while the lowest share, 5 percent, was among workers aged 16-24, who are the new entrants to the workforce.

Several states had huge jumps in the percentage of workers in unions or in the numbers of workers in unions, or both. In California 266,000 more workers joined unions and the percentage of those unionized rose from 16.7 percent in 2007 to 18.4 percent last year. Another was Illinois: The percentage of unionized workers rose from 14.5 percent to 16.6 percent in one year, and the number of union members increased by 97,000 to 939,000.

In Missouri both numbers and percentages rose, while both fell in Minnesota. Missouri unions added 10,000 members, to 285,000 and 11.2 percent, up 0.5 percent in one year. In Minnesota, however, numbers of union members, percentages of union members and the size of the overall workforce all dropped. Unions lost 8,000 members there, dropping to 392,000 and to 16.1 percent of the overall workforce, down from 16.4 percent the year before. The state lost 30,000 from its overall workforce.

The sinking auto industry in Michigan caused the state to lose 48,000 union members, down to 771,000. The percentage of workers in unions dropped from 19.5 percent in 2007 to 18.8 percent last year.

Ohio suffered in a similar way. Union members declined by 14,000 to 716,000. The state lost so many jobs, however, that the percentage of unionized workers actually rose 0.1 percent to a total of 14.2 percent.

Oregon was another state where the increased percentage of workers in unions resulted from a sharp drop in employment overall. The number of union members in Oregon rose by 2,000 to 229,000 but the percentage of workers in unions rose sharply from 14.3 percent to 16.6 percent.