Union organizing fails to stanch loss of membership AFL-CIO leaders baffled by latest labor statistics


LAS VEGAS -- With the AFL-CIO focusing on recruiting more workers, the labor leaders gathered here for the federation's winter meeting were stunned and stumped by the latest news on union membership.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership fell by 159,000 last year, to 16.1 million, even though unions have pumped millions of dollars more into organizing and said they recruited 385,000 more workers in 1997. This decline was especially worrisome, union officials acknowledged, because the economy added 2.8 million jobs.

In addition, the percentage of workers belonging to unions fell to 14.1 percent last year, from 14.5 percent in 1996 -- and less than half of the 35 percent of workers who were members in the 1950s.

There are numerous explanations for why membership dropped in 1997, a year when unions boasted they had broken organizing records. The gains were offset, at least in part, by factors that have shrunk labor's ranks for years: plant closings, layoffs and workers' voting to decertify unions at their workplaces.

"Most of the decline was because we lost a lot of workers out the back end," said Richard Bensinger, the AFL-CIO's director of organizing.

Nonetheless, labor experts are somewhat baffled by what happened last year because they estimate that overall, the unions normally need to recruit 100,000 to 150,000 members each year to offset losses caused by layoffs and decertifications.

"If labor unions organized 385,000 new members last year, there should not have been a drop in membership," said Richard Hurd, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University. Some labor experts suggested that the Bureau of Labor Statistics might have overestimated the drop in membership and that the AFL-CIO, relying on figures from individual unions eager to boast how fast they grew, might have overstated the organizing gains.

"I see more organizing activity than I've seen in 25 years," Hurd added. "But the basic truth is it remains very difficult to organize workers."

AFL-CIO officials say one important factor holding down membership is that newly organized workers whose unions have not signed first contracts with employers are often not counted by the government as union members. Bensinger said that at least one-third of the estimated 385,000 newly unionized workers did not have contracts.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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