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The Drop in Union Membership

The recent release of a government report regarding the numbers and percentages of U.S. employees belonging to unions or working where unions represent them made headlines but most newscasts or stories lacked context. It’s an occasion for a statistical “status report.”

The percentage of the U.S. labor force belonging to unions fell 0.5% from 2011 to 2012, according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The drop went from 11.8% to 11.3% – from 14.8 million to 14.4 million Americans.

That’s not an insignificant amount of citizens, of course. The National Rifle Association, well-funded by gun manufacturers and influential on Capitol Hill, has a reported 4.3 million members.

Unionization remains financially appealing, too. Representation by unions meant roughly $200/week for workers. Median earnings for workers represented by unions was $940; nonunion was $740. (A median is where an equal number of amounts are above and below that point.)

In Illinois, 15.5% of workers were represented by unions, a decrease of 1.7% from the year before but still almost 2 million people.

Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said, “Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one.

“Our still-struggling economy, weak laws and political as well as ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership,” he continued. “Union membership impacts every other economic outcome that matters to all workers. Collective action through unions remains the … best way for working people to effect change.”

Cash-strapped governments on local and state levels laid off thousands of workers or curtailed the right to unionize. Half of the lost 400,000 unionized positions were teachers, public safety workers and other government employees.

Economist and author Robert Reich, former U.S. Labor Secretary, added, “Government spending has declined in nine of the last ten quarters. Close to 20 million Americans remain unemployed or underemployed.

“The only reason for employers to hire more workers is if they have more customers, but American employers have not had enough customers,” he continued. “If we can’t rely on consumers to stoke the economy, what about government? More jobs and faster growth should be the most important objectives.”

Other economic data show modest gains for U.S. employment but personal earnings are barely keeping up with inflation.

The median – again, the midpoint – weekly earnings figure for 2012’s 4th quarter was $772 (seasonally adjusted), BLS reported. Seasonally adjusted means numbers formulated to minimize changes due to normal annual occurrences like Christmas, summer vacations and weather. It presents a clearer picture of fluctuations caused by unusual occurrences like layoffs. The median is 1.7% lower than the 4th quarter five years ago.

Seen as “constant dollars” based on dollars’ value in 1982-84, median weekly earnings are just $334, which means that it takes $772 in income today to buy what $334 would buy then.

Unionized workers skew older, too. Unionization is highest in 55- to 64-year-olds, the generation whose jobs are being off-shored or eliminated. Most jobs available to younger workers aren’t yet unionized.

Meanwhile, inflation, reflected in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), showed a 1.8% rise in prices in December from a year earlier, with medical-care costs up 4% in that year, somewhat moderated by falling natural gas prices (down 4%). Inflation continues to remain low – as shown by the trend reflected over the previous few months, which shows year-to-year increases of 1.8 to 2.2% from August through November. However, wages are improving very slowly. In Illinois, for example, workers fell behind, their 1.6% wage gains not keeping up with that 1.8% in higher prices.

So the need for workers to organize is still present – if employers stop breaking the law.

Trumka, again, said, “What will define the labor movement of the future is not assaults or the changing economy, but how working people come together to respond to them. We enter 2013 with our eyes open and understand that these challenges offer real opportunities for working people to reshape the future.”  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at

The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.