People@Work: The Great Recession Reverses Recent Gains for Labor Unions

Fresh data show that fewer Americans than ever belong to a union on the job, despite recent gains in membership and efforts by organizers to boost the rolls of union labor.

Last year, about 14.7 million hourly and salary workers belonged to unions, or 11.9% of the workforce, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday. In 2009, 12.3%, or about 612,000, more Americans were unionized, the agency noted.

The data further showed that for the second year in a row the number of unionized government employees, 7.6 million, outnumbered those in the private sector at 7.1 million, though both saw their numbers decline.

"It was a very tough year for unionized workers," John Schmitt, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research told The New York Times. "We're seeing declines in the private sector, and we're seeing declines in the public sector."

The union membership rate for public sector workers at 36.2% was substantially higher than the rate for private sector workers at 6.9%, the bureau said. In 2009, 7.2% of the private-sector workforce was unionized, while 37.4% of government workers were union members.

A Far Cry From the Historical Peaks

According to the bureau's data, New York had the highest unionization rate of any state, at 24.2%, followed by Alaska, at 22.9%, and Hawaii, at 21.8%. North Carolina had the lowest rate, at 3.2%, with Arkansas and Georgia tied for second-lowest at 4%.

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The percentage of union workers is a far cry from the nearly 18% union membership rate recorded in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, the bureau said. Americans' participation in unions peaked in the 1950s, when about 35% of all workers were union members, driven by a surge in organizing activity amid the Great Depression and following World War II, according to the Times.

Given the nation's housing slump, it's not surprising that the construction sector saw the largest drop in employment and thus in union members, falling to 13.1% in 2010, down from 14.5% in 2009, but manufacturing and teaching also saw losses.

The losses in the ranks of government workers came as local and state governments, facing lean budgets, cut thousands of jobs. And the layoffs are likely to continue. Newly elected New York Gov. Mario Cuomo is expected to soon announce plans to eliminate 15,000 jobs from the government payroll, as the state struggles to close a $9 billion budget gap.

Factors Beyond the Recession

Despite the dreary tenor of the report, the bureau's data showed that union workers fared better than their nonunion counterparts in one key area: earnings power. At an average $917 a week, union workers earned $200 more in wages than those not in unions.

The drop in the number of union workers in 2009 and 2010 followed two years of gains, thanks to increases in employment and successful organizing campaigns, the Times noted.

Though the recent recession has played a role in reducing unionized labor, many other factors have contributed to the recent decline, including an increasingly global workforce and growing resistance among corporations to accept organizing drives.

Though companies with unionized workforces often have more productive workforces, the cost of doing business is typically higher than that of their nonunion competition, Georgia State University labor economist Barry T. Hirsch told the newspaper. Hirsch noted that "in an increasingly globalized, very fast-moving world, unionized companies may not be able to adjust as quickly."