Union Membership Down; Is Interest in Joining Up?

Union leaders gathered in Hollywood, Florida for this week’s AFL-CIO winter executive council meeting were confronted with some bad news. Union membership has reached its lowest level in two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Some 13.2 percent of America’s work force belonged to unions in 2002, down from 13.4 percent in 2001, according to the report. The primary explanation for the decline is that manufacturing companies hemorrhaged traditional union jobs faster than organizers could build new membership in other areas. (See AP article.)

Union leaders responded to the bad news with their own poll: one that showed that over half of workers surveyed said that they would form a union tomorrow if given the chance. (See AFL-CIO press release.) Since employers often resist unionization efforts, also under discussion at this week’s meeting is a “comprehensive, union movement wide campaign to expose the immoral and illegal tactics employers use to thwart workers’ efforts to form unions.” This organizing effort will be known as the “National Rights at Work Committee,” and will attempt to counter difficulties workers in many industries have encountered when trying to form unions. (See NY Times article.)

Some critics of the labor movement claim that more needs to be done to stem the decline in union membership. Thomas Geoghegan comments in response: “The big challenge is whether these labor leaders can think outside the box to figure out a way to pull in people.” Geoghegan is a labor lawyer and author who frequently comments on unionization issues. A provocative article coauthored by Geoghegan and Barbara Ehrenreich recently appeared in The Nation magazine. Called Lighting Labor’s Fire, the article begins with the statement, “The collapse of union membership in America, from its peak at 38 percent in the mid-fifties to 9 percent of the private work force today, is the one big reason for our roaring inequality.” It is clear that union membership makes a difference in a workers’ wage: even the DOL report acknowledges that in 2002, full-time wage and salary workers who were union members had median usual weekly earnings of $740, compared with a median of $587 for wage and salary workers who were not represented by unions.

But can we wait for unionization to catch up with the economy, or for the Rights at Work Committee to take off? With little sign of economic improvement, union membership is going to continue to hemorrhage at an alarming rate. One solution proposed by Geoghegan and Ehrenreich is for unions to offer affiliate or individual memberships–a form of membership accessible to any worker, regardless of whether a union had successfully organized the workplace. Our sister organization, the National Employment Lawyers Association, is mentioned in the article as a possible co-collaborator in this effort, with the idea that people would join unions individually if it meant access to an employee rights attorney. It’s an interesting idea, which is sure to be discussed in the coming months, involving Workplace Fairness, NELA, and other organizations. It’s clear that something must be done if workers are to be able to stand up to their employers, and if unions aren’t the solution, then a new solution is needed.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.