A new report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that union membership rose sharply last year, adding over 400, 000 new union members. But that growth occurred in the face of a wide range of legal and illegal unionbusting tactics and intimidation: Studies of hundreds of organizing campaigns have found that a fifth of all pro-union activists are fired during a campaign, half of all employers threaten to shut down their plant and roughly 80% of employers hire unionbusting consultants. Even so, as union activists point out, when workers are allowed to join unions, they do. As the AFL-CIO NOW blog observes: Union membership, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says, is especially valuable to working families as the nation’s economy is in the worst recession in decades. "Today’s numbers confirm what many working people already know: that if given the chance, American workers are choosing to join unions in larger numbers. Workers in unions are much more likely to have health care benefits and a pension than those without a union; in today’s economy, that’s the difference between sinking and swimming." The BLS survey also reports on the union advantage workers receive on payday. In 2008, full-time union workers earned a median weekly salary of $886 while nonunion workers were paid 28 percent less per week, $691. Some 60 million workers say they would join a union if they had the opportunity. But when workers try to form unions through the flawed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process, employers routinely respond with threats, intimidation, firings and harassment. Despite that, the anti-union special interests and their media echo chamber are seizing on these new findings to argue that we don't really need an Employee Free Choice Act. Pro-business U.S. News columnist Matt Bandyk says cynically: "I had always read from supporters that the reason we need the EFCA is because the number of union members in the US had been declining in recent decades, and the bill would reverse that trend. So if unions grow less powerful, we desperately need the EFCA. If unions grow more powerful, we still desperately need it." In truth, the growth in membership is a sign of how eager people are to find economic security in turbulent times by joining unions -- no matter how many roadblocks employers throw in their way. As American Rights at Work Executive Director Mary Beth Maxwell said about the new report: “These numbers show that Americans understand the role unions play in improving working families’ standard of living, particularly in our downturn economy. However, many more workers want unions but are stymied in their efforts to form them. In fact, 60 million workers say they would join a union today if they could. Unfortunately, 94 percent of employers resist their workers’ efforts to form unions, and 25 percent even fire pro-union workers during organizing campaigns. We can only expect a meaningful increase in union membership and a restored middle class when men and women are able to truly exercise their federally-protected right to form a union."
Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.