The Bureau of Labor Statistics has just released the 2012 union membership rates and, for the most part, the numbers are sobering but not surprising. In a year in which the economy remained unsteady and labor took quite a few legislative hits on the state level, the numbers showed a decline in almost all categories. The percentage of public sector workers that were members of a union declined from 37 percent to 35.9 percent, while the private sector rate declined from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent. Overall, this marked a decline from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent, or approximately 400,000 workers. This decline occurred at a moment when, as Steven Greenhouse notes, the national economy added 2.4 million jobs. The report also provided a reminder of one of the reasons unions are necessary: union members make on average 27 percent more than their non-union counterparts.
However, as dispiriting as these numbers are—and they are dispiriting—they are likely to become either much better or much worse in the coming years. The past several years have witnessed huge setbacks on the state legislative level for workers. From legislation in Wisconsin and Florida that diminished public sector workers’ rights to bargain collectively to the expansion of “Right to Work” legislation in the Mid-West (including Michigan), labor law reform has made it harder to organize. And, as with most legislation, the effects are not felt immediately. That means that the current BLS numbers do not reflect much of the recent anti-worker legislation.
Similarly, the numbers do not reflect major steps made by workers seeking to organize in retail, fast-food, and other industries. Walmart workers organized coordinated protests across the country in 2012—most notably on Black Friday—in order to call attention to the poor working conditions in the stores. In Pittsburgh, health care workers have been making significant strides in organizing the massive UPMC hospital chain. In Mississippi, auto workers, using a civil rights frame, have been declaring small but meaningful victories in their organizing campaign at the Canton Nissan plant. And, in New York City, a massive one-day strike was held by fast food workers—a group that is notoriously difficult to organize. Though these are early steps in what will likely prove long campaigns, they signal labor’s willingness to engage in difficult but important fights.
These two divergent forces will likely determine the future trajectory of union density. Workers are organizing under extremely difficult circumstances. It is now incumbent on labor organizations to help enact legislative reform on the state and federal level to support these workers.
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