Private-sector union membership climbs

By BenefitsPro

By Allen Greenberg

Union membership remained unchanged at 11.3 percent in 2013, but there was a slight increase in the number of unionized workers in the private sector for the first time since 2009, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Tuesday.

Job losses in the public sector, once a bright spot for union growth, have taken a toll on unions. Unions lost roughly 120,000 public-sector members in 2013, a 1.6 percent drop from 2012, the report said.

But in the private sector, where employment grew by more than 2 million in 2013, the report said unions picked up 280,000 members, a 4 percent bump, as construction and manufacturing, among other industries, saw recovery from the recession.

AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker called the gains “good news.”

Justin Wilson, managing director for the Center for Union Facts, which opposes organized labor, told the Wall Street Journal that the private-sector membership gains are "not a blip that should be taken lightly."

Unions “have definitely redoubled their efforts at organizing, especially in nontraditional industries,” such as car-wash attendants and marijuana dispensers in California, Wilson said. “Anything that’s not bad news is good news for unions these days.”

Labor Secretary Tom Perez said supporting unions is a way for workers to reach the middle class.

“The data (in the BLS report) show that among full-time wage and salary workers, union members have higher median weekly earnings than nonunion workers,” Perez said, noting $950 median weekly earnings of union members compared with $750 for nonunion workers. He also cited more benefits such as health insurance and retirement-savings plans.

The total number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions last year stood at 14.5 million, little different from 2012. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

In 2013, 7.2 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.3 million workers in the private sector. Growth in private-sector unions aside, public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.3 percent) more than five times higher than that of the private sector (6.7 percent).

Workers in education, training, and library occupations and in protective-service occupations had the highest unionization rate, at 35.3 percent for each occupation group.

Private-sector industries with high unionization rates included utilities (25.6 percent), transportation and warehousing (19.6 percent), telecommunications (14.4 percent), and construction (14.1 percent). Low unionization rates were seen in agriculture and related industries (1 percent), finance (1 percent), and in food services and drinking places (1.3 percent).

Other highlights from the report:
  • Men had a higher union membership rate (11.9 percent) than women (10.5 percent).
  • Black workers were more likely to be union members than white, Asian, or Hispanic workers.
  • Among states, New York continued to have the highest union membership rate (24.4 percent), and North Carolina had the lowest rate (3 percent).
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