USA: The state of the unions

Tony Burke reviews the state of the American union movement as they recover from the great recession.


Union membership in the USA grew last year, according to figures from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics released on Friday last week.

The figure gives unions some hope that a period of job losses and the war on unions waged by right wing federal administrations and multi-national companies maybe easing.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

“It is telling that as our country begins to recover the jobs lost during the great recession, good union jobs are beginning to come back.”

The latest figures show that the number of unionised workers increased by 50,000 to almost 14.8 million in 2011.

The increase comes after unions lost almost 1.4 million members during 2009 – 2010.

However it is not all good news. Despite membership gains, unions’ share of the overall work force fell, from 11.9 percent to 11.8 percent, as state and local governments cut thousands of jobs to address budget shortfalls.

Union membership is still at the lowest percentage of workers since the great depression in the 1930s.

In some states such as Ohio, (traditionally a ‘unionised” state) the number of unionised workers fell to 647,000, a decrease of 8,000 from 2010.

However Michigan added 44,000 unionised workers in 2011, the second-highest state total.

Bruce Pietrykowski, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, said that in Michigan and Ohio:

The two sectors to look at to explain any of these changes are manufacturing and government.”

Car production, which saw a revival in 2011, is vital to both State economies, but in different ways.

Most jobs in that industry in Ohio are in motor vehicle parts manufacturing, which is less unionised than assembly, Pietrykowski said.

Nationally, unions saw losses of about 61,000 workers in government employment. But they grew by 110,000 workers in the private sector, mainly among construction and health care workers.

Despite that growth, unions still represent just 6.9 percent of all workers at private companies, unchanged from 2010.

John Schmitt, a senior economist with the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, said that:

“The devastating losses from 2009 and 2010 have stopped and that’s got to be good news for the labour movement.”

Schmitt said another positive for unions is that private-sector membership grew at about the same rate as overall job growth.

US union membership has declined steadily from its peak of about a third of all workers in the 1950s, and about 20 percent in 1983.

The losses have been especially steep in private industry with the loss of manufacturing jobs that traditionally were heavily unionised.

As private-sector union membership eroded, unions have turned increasingly toward workers in state and local governments, where there often was less resistance to union organising.

Around 7.6 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union in 2011, compared with 7.2 million union workers in the private sector. Public-sector workers had a union membership rate of 37 percent, more than five times that of private-sector workers.

But future public-sector growth in union membership faces problems.

States and municipalities have laid off tens of thousands of workers to balance their budgets after tax revenues plummeted in the recession.

Public-sector unions also have also faced open warfare from legislatures such as those in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states that have tried to curb collective bargaining rights.

Only last week the Indiana legislature voted 54-44 to make the State the 23rd so-called right to work state.

Florida saw the largest increase in union members in 2011, up 68,000. Union membership fell most sharply in New York, down 53,000.

New York remains the most heavily unionised state at 24 percent, while North Carolina has the lowest union rate at 2.9 percent.

But the “union premium” is still strong – among full-time wage and salary workers, the median weekly earnings of union members was $938, compared to $729 for non- union workers.

See also:

Obama puts manufacturing top of the agenda – time for Cameron to do the same?Tony Burke, January 27th 2012

What kind of “civil disobedience” tactics will the unions use?Dan Whittle, September 15th 2011

Priti Patel’s attacks on trade unions are all about ideologyCarl Roper, October 12th 2011

How do unions renew their public image?Dan Whittle, July 1st 2011

Mail masks Thatcher’s true legacy: Unions busted, hours extended, productivity held backDaniel Elton, May 5th 2011

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20 Responses to “USA: The state of the unions”

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