Membership in unions increased by 49,000 from 2010 to 2011, including 15.000 new members in the 16 to 24-year-old range, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures released Jan. 27.
The increase of 110,000 in the private sector was offset by a loss of 61,000 in the public sector, making the overall rate of union membership in 2011 basically unchanged from 2010 at 11.8 percent. There are 14.8 million American workers who are members of unions.
The percentage of public sector workers in unions is 37 percent, up from 36.2 percent a year earlier while private sector union membership remains at 6.9 percent.
Most of the gains in union membership happened in construction, health care, retail, metals trades, hospitals, transportation and warehousing.
While no one is celebrating the figures as a rebirth of the American labor movement, "the bottom line," according to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, "is that despite an unprecedented volley of partisan political attacks on workers' rights and the continuing insecurity of the economic crisis, union membership increased slightly last year. Working men and women want to come together to improve their lives."
Union membership is also seen as much more important than just making conditions better on the job for union members.
"The way to get the economy back on track is to boost the purchasing power of the middle class and the way to do this is to expand the number of working Americans in unions," said Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in one of his recent newspaper columns. "Working families aren't asking for a handout or a bailout, but they need and deserve to have a fair share of the prosperity they are creating. They need a level playing field and the freedom to bargain for a better life," Reich added.
To that end unions mounted, over the last several years, and Republicans have successfully blocked passage of the Employee Free Choice Act which would require employers 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.
When the Obama administration and the National Labor Relations Board stepped in to try to do administratively, some of the things the Employee Free Choice Act would have done legislatively, Republicans moved on several fronts to try to cripple the labor board itself.
In December the NLRB put in new rules to shorten the time that lapses between filing for a union election and the date of the election itself and rules that limit employer challenges that can be mounted to delay an election. The GOP retaliated by vowing to block any Obama appointment to the board, a move that would have crippled it because, due to resignations, it would no longer have the necessary quorum to function.
The president then filled the three vacancies by making recess appointments, thus bypassing the Senate where a Republican minority had vowed to block the appointments.
And the battle continues, now with Mark Pearce, the new chairman of the board, vowing to push for yet another set of rules changes that would make it still easier for unions to organize.
One change Pearce wants to make is to require businesses to hand over lists of employee phone numbers and emails to union leaders before an election. He would also like to allow electronic filings for union elections and quicker timetables for a number of other procedures.
The recess appointments, including that of Pearce himself, raised an outcry from Republicans and anti-union groups who said the appointments were unconstitutional because the Senate was not technically in recess when they were made.
If the new rules are approved they will go into effect on April 30 and effectively speed up the process for holding union elections, one of the major goals of those who backed the stalled Employee Free Choice Act.