WASHINGTON (PAI) — The number of unionists declined by 326,000 from 2005 to 2006, dropping to 12 percent of the U.S. labor force, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported. But there were big jumps of 52,000 in Arizona and 26,000 in Washington, a small rise in Minnesota, and increases in 17 states, including “red states” Montana and both Carolinas.

The BLS reported the nation had 15.4 million union members last year, down from 15.7 million in 2005. Unions represented another 1.5 million people who were not members in 2006. Many of them pay “agency fees,” but some do not. Unionization among public sector workers, at 36.2 percent, was five times that of private sector workers, 7.4 percent.

“The most important thing the numbers show is how critical it is to pass the Employee Free Choice Act,” AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff said in a telephone interview. EFCA would “restore the freedom to form unions without interference, retaliation and intimidation” by employers, he added.

Data from an AFL-CIO-commissioned poll show 53 percent of nonsupervisory workers who are not now in a union would join one if they could without employer interference. That means 60 million would vote for unions, but only 15.4 million are in unions, Acuff noted. That gap is due to employer interference and intimidation, he said.

The BLS report shows the most densely unionized field in 2006 was local government — especially firefighters and other protective services, plus teachers — at 41.9 percent. More than one-fifth (23.2 percent) of transportation and utility workers were unionists last year, as were 17.6 percent of construction and extraction workers and 20.7 percent of telecom workers.

Reflecting the Communications Workers’ recent card-check organizing successes, the number of unionized telecom workers rose by 11,000 in one year, to 245,000, though the percentage declined. Factories had 1.8 million union workers, or 11.7 percent. That’s down almost 200,000 workers, 1.3 percent, in one year.

In almost every occupation and demographic, unionists increased their advantage in earnings over their nonunion colleagues in 2006, the BLS said. The median weekly earning for unionists nationwide — that point at which half are above and half are below — was $833, up by $32 (3.9 percent) in one year. The median for nonunion workers was $642, up by $20 (3.1 percent).

Unionists had an edge in median earnings in factories (unionists $755, nonunionists $692), construction (unionists $969, nonunionists $610) and almost everywhere else in 2006. For retail workers, the edge for union over nonunion workers was $65 a week ($583 vs. $518).

Union members were concentrated in the Northeast, the Midwest and on the Pacific Coast. Just under half of all unionists lived in six states: California (2.27 million, down 150,000), New York (1.98 million, down 109,000), Illinois (931,000, up 4,000), Michigan (842,000, down 38,000), New Jersey (770,000, down 21,000) and Pennsylvania (753,000, down 8,000). Those states have one-third of all U.S. workers.

The problems of the auto industry, which is going through massive layoffs at Ford and GM and a bankruptcy at Delphi auto parts, showed up in the Ohio and Michigan numbers. Unionists were 14.2 percent of Ohio’s workers last year, down from 16 percent the year before, and Ohio dropped to seventh place, with 734,000 unionists last year, down 70,000 in one year.

New York and Hawaii traded places as the most-unionized state, but density dropped in both. Hawaii led in 2004 and New York in 2005. Hawaii reclaimed the lead last year: 24.7 percent of its workers are unionized, ahead of 24.4 percent in New York. Other high-density states were California (15.7 percent), Alaska (22.2), Michigan (19.6, down from 20.5), Illinois (16.4) and Minnesota (16 percent, up 0.3).

Spokeswomen for Change to Win and the AFL-CIO said the big jumps in Washington and in Arizona — where unions added 52,000 workers, to 197,000, and went from 6.1 percent to 7.6 percent of the workforce in one year — were due to different reasons.

The 26,000-member increase in Washington was driven by successful organizing of health care workers, they said. Arizona’s hike came from “no one campaign, but from growth in a wide range of unionized sectors, including the public sector and grocery stores,” an AFL-CIO spokeswoman added.