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Working In These Times

Friday, Jan 22, 2010, 1:59 pm

Recession Pushes Union Membership Down

BY David Moberg

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Manufacturing, information industries take major hits; public workers make up majority of labor movement for first time

After two years when unions made and retained small gains, the percentage of union members in the workforce dropped last year by 0.1 percent, to 12.3 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF link) announced today. 15.3 million American workers currently belong to unions.

Both the BLS and unions attributed the decline to the heavy job losses from the recession, obviously disproportionately hitting union members, partly because of the geographic concentration of losses in more heavily unionized states.

For example, more than a million construction workers lost jobs from 2008 to 2009. With 15.6 percent union density in 2008, more than twice the rate for the private sector as a whole, the disproportionately heavy job loss in construction would by itself lower the overall unionization rate. But on top of that, union construction workers disproportionately lost jobs, as reflected in the decline in union density in construction to 14.5 percent.

Manufacturing industries also shed over 10 percent of their jobs in 2009, and union workers disproportionately lost jobs. But manufacturing is no longer as much of a union stronghold as it once was, and union members represented only 11.4 percent of manufacturing workers in 2008, dropping to 10.9 percent in 2009.

Contrary to public perceptions, the information industry–in theory jobs of the future—also contributed significantly to union losses. The industry, including publishing, film, broadcast and telecom, lost nearly the same percentage of jobs as manufacturing, with a similar increased hit to unionized jobs, as the percentage of information workers in unions dropped from 12.7 percent to 10.0 percent.

As the unionization rate in the private sector dropped to a new low of 7.2 percent, the percentage of union members in the public sector grew to 37.4 percent. For the first time, public sector workers make up a majority of the U.S. labor movement.

Union officials insist that organizing has continued at a steady pace throughout the recession, but the National Labor Relations Board reports that union representation elections declined in fiscal year 2009 to the lowest level since World War II (although with the highest win rate since the 1950s). But a growing share of union organizing campaigns do not use NLRB elections, and an AFL-CIO survey of overall organizing activity is incomplete.

Union membership in the public sector held steady, even as jobs declined slightly. That may partly reflect the greater ease of organizing public workers, as American Rights at Work noted, because laws protect workers’ rights–including the right to majority sign-up in 13 states–and public officials are less likely to fight unionization than private sector employers, whose attacks on union organizing have intensified.

Overall, major trends remain intact, with the recession simply adding to labor’s woes and temporarily snuffing out a slight uptick in union fortunes.

Now the prospects for even a weakened Employee Free Choice Act have diminished for this year and probably more so after mid-term elections, despite union public claims to the contrary. So the labor movement faces not only a much more drawn-out battle for labor law reform but also the tougher strategic issue of how to organize on a big scale without reform.

The answer may require a much more socially disruptive approach to organizing, mobilizing workers for direct action much more than most union campaigns now do. Growing social unrest may push legislators to enact reform as well as create a popular organizing movement from the ground up to complement and enliven union top-down organizing strategies.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at

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