“Look for the union label.” That was one of the catch phrases for the union movement in happier times. It used to be labor unions were something that many working class Americans loved. It now appears that labor unions are something that many working class Americans hate.
What is the status of labor unions as we approach Labor Day 2012? On January 27 of this year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Union Members Summary for 2011 which showed that the union membership rate for wage and salary workers was 11.8 percent with a total of 14.8 million union workers. The release highlighted that “public sector workers had a union membership rate (37.0 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.9 percent).”
The BLS release observed that “In 1983, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.” Thus, the overall decline in the membership percentage between 1983 and 2011 was almost 41 percent. That is a substantial shrinkage in those 28 years.
The more complete and revealing picture is provided by examining comparative historic data available at Unionstats.com maintained by Barry T. Hirsch and David A. McPherson. That data goes back to 1973 and shows that in the ten years between 1973 and 1983 private sector union membership went from 24.2 percent to 16.5 percent (a decline of 32 percent) and public sector union membership went from 23.0 percent to 36.7 percent (an increase of nearly 60 percent).
Public sector union membership from 1983 to 2011 has hovered in the 36 to 37+ percent range. In stark contrast, private sector union membership tumbled from the 16.5 percent of 1983 to 6.9 percent (a decline of almost 58 percent in that time frame, and a decline of over 71 percent since 1973).
These statistics are stunning but they only tell part of the story about the current status of unions in both the private and public sectors. That story is in the back stories and not in the numbers.
Undoubtedly, the highest profile union story for the past two years has been the battle between Governor Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin and its public sector employees. The battle began when Walker introduced legislation which the Wisconsin legislature passed to significantly change the collective bargaining process and powers of the union. The union in turn led an effort to have Walker recalled. The recall election was held on June 5, 2012 and Walker easily beat his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett (D). Walker’s dual “union-busting” victories along with the Republican Party Platform for 2012 which endorses, as Josh Eidelson points out in his August 29 Salon blog, “the enactment of a National Right to Work Law” do not augur well for the future of unions — either public or private.
The resolution of the dispute between Caterpillar and its striking workers at its Joliet, IL plant does not augur well either. As Steven Greenhouse reports in his August 18 New York Times article, “The fight… was considered a test case in American labor relations, in part because Caterpillar was driving such a hard bargain when its business was thriving.” It was a “test” that Caterpillar won and the union lost as the workers, voting against the recommendations of their leadership, ratified a deal that gave Caterpillar almost everything that it was asking for. This included: a six-year wage freeze for employees hired before 2005, a pension freeze for the senior two \-thirds of the workforce, and a “steep increase” in the portion of the health care insurance to be paid by the workers. read more…