Labor unions suffered sharp declines in membership last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wednesday, led by losses in the public sector as cash-strapped state and local governments laid off workers and — in some cases — limited collective bargaining rights.
The union membership rate fell from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent of all workers nationwide, the lowest level since the 1930s. In Minnesota, the percentage of workers who were union members fell from 15.1 percent in 2011 to 14.2 percent last year. In Wisconsin, the percentage declined from 13.8 percent to 12.1 percent.
Nationwide, total union membership fell by about 400,000 workers to 14.4 million. More than half the loss — about 234,000 — came from government workers including teachers, firefighters and public administrators.
“Over the past few years there has been incredibly restrictive public budgets,” said Eric Lehto, chief of staff of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 5, which has about 40,000 members statewide, including employees with the city of Duluth, St. Louis County, Duluth and Proctor school districts and other state and local agencies.
“Restrictive budgets almost always mean job loss,” he said. “Government is not a widget company. Every budget cut almost always leads to someone losing their job.”
AFSCME lost 50 to 60 members in Northeastern Minnesota last year, Lehto said, mainly through attrition as people retired or quit and were not replaced. Some units of government remained fairly stable. On Jan. 31, 2011, St. Louis County government had 1,653.95 FTE union positions. A year later it had 1,653.15.
Statewide, AFSCME bucked the trend by increasing membership by perhaps 300 members, Lehto said, mainly through organizing new units in the Twin Cities. In the Duluth school district, a lack of state financial support and a failure to pass an excess-levy referendum has led to a reduction in teaching positions beyond what declining enrollments would require.
“We have seen a steady decline in teachers,” Duluth Federation of Teachers President Frank Wanner said. “We’ve been losing 30, 40 positions a year. That translates into larger class sizes, more work for teachers, increased level of stress.”
STATES WEAKEN UNION CLOUT
The losses add another blow to a labor movement already stretched thin by fighting efforts in states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan to curb bargaining rights and weaken union clout.
But unions also saw losses in the private sector, even as the economy expanded modestly. That rate of membership fell from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent, a troubling sign for the future of organized labor, as job growth has generally taken place at nonunion firms.
“To employers, it’s going to look like the labor movement is ready for a knockout punch,” said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “You can’t be a movement and get smaller.”
Unions have steadily lost members since their peak in the 1950s, when about one of every three workers was in a union.By 1983, about 20 percent of American workers were union members.
Losses in the public sector are hitting unions particularly hard since that has been one of the few areas where membership was growing over the past two decades. About 51 percent of union members work in government, where until recently, there had been little resistance to union organizing.
That began to change when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a law in 2011 eliminating most union rights for government workers. The state lost about 46,000 union members last year, mostly in the public sector.
Union officials blame losses on the lingering effects of the recession, as well as GOP governors and state lawmakers who have sought to weaken union rights. They point out that union members on average make a better living than non-union workers.
Wednesday’s report showed that union membership is rising in traditionally non-union states such as Texas and Louisiana where economic activity is expanding. Among full-time wage and salary workers nationwide, union members in 2012 had median weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members earned $742.
“Union membership is the frontline defense for the middle class,” Lehto said.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.
Protesters demonstrate outside the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison in February 2011. Union membership fell sharply in 2012, led by losses among state and local government workers as cash-strapped agencies cut jobs. File / McClatchy Newspapers
About 200 people at the Douglas County Courthouse protest Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to suspend collective bargaining rights for many public employees in March 2011. File / News Tribune