Union membership declines by 400,000 in 2012

union membership
Union membership has been declining in the United States for more than 30 years, from 20 percent of the workforce in 1978 to 11 percent today.


PAI Staff Writer

Washington  (PAI)—The number of union members nationwide declined by nearly 400,000 from 2011 to 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week.

The agency reported 14.4 million workers were union members last year, (11.3 percent) down from 14.8 million (11.8 percent) in 2011.

Nearly 40 percent of public sector workers remained in unions in 2012, despite a 224,000 decline of public sector union members last year. There were 7.3 million public-sector union members, in 2012.

Union density in the private sector declined to 6.6 percent, BLS’ survey said.

Unions lost almost three times as many women, 288,000, compared to 111,000 for men. There remain 6.5 million women in unions compared to 7.9 million men.


Missouri lost 51,000 union members. Illinois lost 75,000 members. Union construction and manufacturing workers have been hit hard by the recession in both states. Public sector unions in Illinois have sustained thousands of layoffs as a result of the state’s budget crisis. Union membership in Missouri now stands at 8.9 percent of the workforce, down from 10.9 percent in 2011. In Illinois, union membership was at 14.6 percent, down from 16.2 percent.

Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, said the decline is largely recessionary and can be expected to pick up once construction starts to rebound.

“We’ve had four years of steady decline due to lack of construction,” Aboussie said. “A lot of people have gone on withdrawal due to their economic household condition. There’s not one union that has not had a decline in union membership due to this recession. We’ve had a lot of people going out of state just to find work.  Once things start to pick up again, I think we’ll see people coming back to the union ranks and we’ll see our percentages start to trend up.

“I think we’re past the worst the part of it,” Aboussie said. “We’re starting to see architectural and engineering firms busier than they were a year ago, which is a good sign. I think when construction starts to pick up we’ll see our numbers start to rebound.”


AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had this to say about the declining numbers:  “Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is it has become more difficult for them to have one.”

“Our still-struggling economy, weak laws and political and   ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership, and in the process have imperiled economic security and good, middle-class jobs,” he continued.

Trumka and other union leaders point out that there has been a 30-year assault on unions among radical elements of the business community ever since the Reagan administration tilted federal policy away from supporting unions.

While Democratic administrations have occasionally and temporarily stalled the Republican attacks at the federal level, the battles against unions have continued in state legislatures and the courts. In the past two years, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan have adopted right-to-work (for less) laws, while labor has fought them off in several other states, including Missouri and Illinois.


Despite the attacks and declining membership, Trumka said, labor “understand these challenges offer real opportunities…to reshape the future.”  He said coalitions of workers are building in communities, with young people and immigrants and in fights against Right Wingers.  He also claimed workers are “organizing in innovative ways” to create “a new movement for the future and to create good jobs and an economy that works for all.”

BLS analyst Jim Walker told Press Associates Union News Service the most definite thing that can be drawn from the numbers is the long-term trend of declining union density in the U.S.

Overall, Walker added, the decline in union density reflects the changing nature of the economy.  He noted the survey that produces the union data also generates the monthly employment and jobless numbers.  It has shown a consistent long-term shift away from construction and manufacturing to service jobs, many in less-union-dense industries, such as finance, insurance and real estate (1.9 percent unionized).

State-level and industry-level figures – such as Wisconsin’s 2.1percent union density decline, where Right Wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker banned collective bargaining for 200,000 state and local workers – are based on samples too small to reach definitive conclusions, Jim Walker added.  The survey covers 60,000 households nationwide, in rolling groups, so the same households are not surveyed every month.

“I think the decline” in states like Wisconsin “might have more to do with construction projects being completed or factories closing down” than with specific political policies, BLS’ Walker said.

The survey does not ask if workers can be unionized – independent contractors, for example, cannot – and it only covers a worker’s primary job.  “So, for example, an office worker who in the evening plays the violin” in a local orchestra which is unionized “is not counted as a union member,” he said.

The survey reported the number of state and local government workers nationwide – the targets of anti-union business interests – declined by 187,000 last year, to 6.4 million.  Almost all that drop was in local government, down 182,000, to 4.4 million.

BLS said 41.7 percent of local government workers were union members in 2012, down from 43.5 percent in 2011.  Percentages were also high among teachers (35.4 percent), and protective service workers (34.8 percent).  The most heavily unionized private sectors were utilities (24.7 percent) and telecommunications (15.6 percent).

One of every seven construction workers (13.2 percent) and one of every 11 factory workers (9.6 percent) were union members last year, though BLS’ Walker again cautioned against drawing specific conclusions from such small samples.

As in prior years, the union movement is concentrated in the Northeast, the Great Lakes States and the Pacific Coast. It is weakest in the South, from Florida to Arizona.

BLS calculated about half of all union members lived in seven states: California, (2.5 million), New York (1.8 million), Illinois (801,000), Pennsylvania (734,000), Michigan (629,000), New Jersey (611,000), and Ohio (604,000).  Numbers and density declined in all those states except New Jersey, where density was unchanged.

There were two notable exceptions to the overall trends, with slight increases in union membership in Kentucky and Texas.


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