State of the Unions This Labor Day: Losing Battles in the States

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Unions have taken a beating this year from state courts and legislatures. The most notable beat-down came in Wisconsin this summer when the state Supreme Court upheld a law limiting collective bargaining rights for public workers. If collective bargaining is limited by the courts -- meaning unions can't negotiate much more than wages, and not greatly at that -- then workers may not see as much benefit in joining them, which further cuts into their strength.

Act 10 limited bargaining rights to pay raises within the rate of inflation. The law also required workers to contribute more for their health care and pensions, a move that Gov. Scott Walker (R) said was needed to lower the state's budget deficit. It did just that, saving Wisconsin taxpayers more than $3 billion, according to the governor.

It also helped lower public sector union membership in Wisconsin. With workers forced to contribute more money to their health care and pensions, some couldn't afford union dues and dropped out of the union. One public sector union in the state saw membership fall by as much as 60 percent.

How Many Union Members Are Left?

The overall effect of moves like this on union membership hasn't been tallied. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is for 2013, and it shows union membership at 11.3 percent, the same as it was in 2012.

There are 14.5 million wage and salary workers who belong to unions, which is little different than in 2012, but a large drop from the 17.7 million union workers and 20.1 percent union membership rate in 1983, the first year the bureau started collecting such data.

Actions in Michigan and Indiana

Some union contracts call for mandatory union membership of non-managerial employees at specific workplaces, which can leave some people paying for representation they don't want. Michigan and Indiana recently passed laws making union membership and dues voluntary. Before the school year began in August in Michigan, about 1 percent of teachers opted out of the union, with more defections expected.

One teacher, for example, said he objected to having his union dues go toward political causes that supported things he found morally objectionable.

A similar law was enacted in Wisconsin in 2011, after which a third of teachers dropped their union memberships in what's called a "right to work" movement.

For workers who are on the fence about joining a union, some courts are giving them another reason not to join by preventing unions from automatically deducting union dues from their paychecks. Wisconsin's state supreme court did this, as did an Illinois court in a case relating to home-based personal care providers.

Right to Work

In the 26 states without those so-called "right to work" laws, workers can lose their jobs for refusing to pay union dues, according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Probably the best news for workers who are in unions is that they still make more money than their non-union counterparts. Among full-time workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $950, compared to $750 for those who weren't in a union, according to the BLS.

And what work do most of these union members do? According to the BLS, the highest membership rate is in the public sector, where 35 percent or workers are in a union. It's only 6.7 percent among private-sector workers. Teachers, police officers and firefighters, among other public employees, are heavily unionized, which might give you a bit of extra confidence in the people you are trusting to educate your child, protect you from criminals, or keep your house from burning to the ground; you'll know they feel adequately compensated for their hard labor on your behalf.
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