Union membership in a free fall, reaches 70-year low

unionsSomething is afoot with unions in America. Even with strong backing from the highest levels of government, it looks as if an ineffectual attitude toward organized labor has taken hold.

“I’ve said this before publicly, and I’ll say it again: I make no apologies for it,” President Barack Obama once said of labor unions. “I am a pro-union guy.”

When Obama first picked outgoing Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said he was “thrilled.”

“President Obama has your back, and so do I,” Solis told United Food and Commercial Workers Union convention-goers, according to the Washington Times.

And at a convention of the plumbers and pipe fitters union, Solis addressed her audience as “brothers and sisters” and called the labor union movement “our movement.”

The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill McMorris noted recently that the Obama administration has turned the National Labor Relations Board into “a bastion of pro-union activism,” based on results from a House investigation that showed a “strong pro-union bias.”

But, in spite of arguably the most union-friendly president since John F. Kennedy, a decidedly pro-union labor secretary and a NLRB described as a hotbed of pro-union activism, union membership in America is at a 70-year low.

The Detroit News is reporting that the nation’s unions lost 400,000 members in 2012, as the percentage of U.S. union workers fell to 11.3 percent, its lowest level since the 1930s — declining by 0.5 percent over the last year.

Among public sector workers, 35.9 percent are in a union – down from 37.0 percent in 2011, the report states, the public sector shed nearly 250,000 union workers.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report also shows that private-sector unionization rates fell from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent as private-sector unions lost 165,000 members, according to the Heritage Foundation.

This latest blow to labor unions comes in the wake of the almost-shocking news that Michigan — a state once at the heart of the labor movement and one the Washington Post says still boasts the fifth-highest unionization rate in the nation — is now a right-to-work state.

Of course, we can’t forget the stinging set back unions experienced in Wisconsin, where a shift in attitude may have surfaced first. Not only did the Badger State strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, but Gov. Scott Walker easily withstood a recall election initiated in part by organized labor.

And between the happenings in Wisconsin and Michigan, Indiana approved right-to-work legislation.

When given a choice, many are choosing non-union, as reflected in BSL numbers. Membership in labor unions dropped last year in Wisconsin by 46,000, and by 56,000 in Indiana since it’s new right-to-work law took effect last March.

A decline in public approval is also reflected in an August Gallup poll, which indicates that 52 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, compared to 65 percent in the mid-1990s.

So what is driving these actions?

Is it possible that the tipping point in attitudes toward unions was the NLRB’s 2009 lawsuit over Boeing’s decision to open an assembly plant in the right-to-work state of South Carolina, or is this a continuation of a long-term trend?

Have unions outlived their usefulness in the ultra-competitive markets of today? Is this a result of unions resisting individual performance pay? Is it due to belt-tightening states now have to endure because of the economy?

James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation, suggests that labor laws do not meet the needs of modern American workers and that Congress should bring labor law into the 21st century:

Congress should remove the Section 8(a)(2) proscription on employee involvement programs. Congress should also remove unions’ ability to veto individual raises.

Some in Congress are trying to do so. Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) and Representative Todd Rokita (R–IN) introduced the Rewarding Achievement and Incentivizing Successful Employees (RAISE) Act, which would retain union rates as a wage floor while ensuring they never set a maximum on what employees earn.

One thing is certain: Organized labor will never find a more hospitable climate at the federal level than what it enjoys today. As bleak as the outlook may be, should unions find themselves in a more balanced environment, things could really get tough.



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Tom Tillison


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