Union membership drops to 12%

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WASHINGTON (AP) -Union membership dropped to 12 percent of U.S. workers last year, extending a steady decline from the 1950s when more than a third belonged to unions.

After membership had held steady at 12.5 percent in 2005, it declined anew last year, a decrease of more than 325,000 workers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Thursday.

Membership had been 20.1 percent in 1983, when the bureau first provided comparable numbers. About 35 percent of American workers were union members in the mid-1950s.

The latest gloomy news for organized labor comes at a time when the group is pushing legislation in the Democratic-controlled Congress that would make it easier for unions to organize. But labor laws aren’t the only obstacle to union membership.

“Much of the decline is coming from shifts in the economy,” said Greg Denier, a spokesman for Change to Win, a federation of labor unions. Thousands of jobs are being outsourced or lost to technological changes. And employers are aggressively campaigning against the formation of unions, he said.

Labor unions are pushing legislation that would let workers form unions more readily by simply signing a card or petition, impose stronger penalties on employers who violate labor laws, and allow for arbitration to settle contract disputes.

Advocates of the legislation say they doubt that it will get signed into law by President Bush, but that they think passage in Congress would make eventual signing of the law more likely.

The continuing drop in membership has given them new motivation.

“There’s no better argument for quick passage,” said Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO. The federation’s own research suggests many people would join unions if they had the chance, he said.

Supporters say the proposal is more fair to workers because employers can’t intimidate workers to discourage formation of a union. Opponents say it deprives workers of the right to vote privately on their union preferences, and can lead to union intimidation.

The union membership rate for government workers, 36.2 percent, was substantially higher than for private industry workers, 7.4 percent.

The latest membership statistics have to be “incredibly discouraging for labor,” said Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

“Before they can grow, they have to stand still,” he said. “The unions are losing so many members each year because their jobs are being outsourced and they are organized in shrinking sectors of the economy, like autos, steel and textiles.”

The pressures on organized labor led to a split starting in the summer of 2005, with more than a half-dozen unions breaking free of the AFL-CIO. The breakaway unions cited the need for more emphasis on organizing, though the split was also caused by power struggles and personality disputes among union leaders.

Much of the recent union recruitment has focused on industries unlikely to lose jobs overseas – like the hotel industry, health care and service workers.

The continuing erosion of union membership is “just another sign of the collapse of the middle class,” said David Gregory, a professor of labor law at St. John’s University Law School.

“Health and medical insurance coverage and retirement pension security were the result of decades of work of the labor unions,” he said. “I think we’re going to dramatically see the cutting away of the safety net for workers.”

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