Unionized workers at lowest level in 60 years

Economists say layoffs, retirements are factors


The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent, its lowest point in six decades.

In releasing its survey of union membership last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that the number of union members declined by 200,000 last year to 16.3 million, a discouraging development for the labor movement at a time when it is straining to reverse the decline.

Economists offered several explanations for the decline, including retirements by union members, layoffs of many unionized workers because of foreign competition, and the failure of unions to organize enough additional members to offset such losses.

"There are still many large economic forces acting against labor's holding on to the numbers it has," said Tom Juravich, director of the labor studies center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Last year's membership decline was a blow to union leaders after they had boasted of an apparent turnaround in 1999. That year union membership climbed by 240,000, its largest increase in more than a decade. In addition, the percentage of workers in unions remained steady at 13.9 percent, giving unions hope that they had arrested a steady decline in that percentage.

Despite small increases and declines from year to year, the overall unionization rate has fallen compared with recent decades. Last year's 13.5 percent unionization rate was down from 20 percent in 1983 and a peak of 35 percent in the 1950s.

For unions, one embarrassing aspect of the report was that the membership among private-sector workers fell to 9 percent, down from 9.4 percent in 1999.

In contrast, membership among government workers rose to 37.5 percent, up from 37.3 percent. About 9.1 million of the nation's union members work in the private sector, while 7.1 million are government workers.

The AFL-CIO sought to put the best face on last year's slide, noting that membership was up 150,000 from three years ago. Leaders of the labor federation said much of the drop stemmed from the loss of 160,000 manufacturing jobs last year.

The decline came after John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, had repeatedly prodded unions to invest more money and personnel in organizing more members. Last year, the AFL-CIO said, unions organized 400,000 new members, compared with fewer than 100,000 in 1995, the year Sweeney became the federation's president.

But he said that for unions to add members on a net basis, after accounting for retirements and layoffs, they need to recruit 500,000 to 1 million new members each year.

Leo Troy, professor of labor economics at Rutgers University, voiced skepticism that American unions would ever substantially increase their numbers. Troy noted that the most rapid job growth is in fields like financial services and high technology where unions have little presence. He added that globalization was causing layoffs and plant closings at many unionized operations, which often have higher wage and benefit costs than foreign competitors.

"I don't think unions can turn it around. We've had the most favorable pro-union administration in office since President Carter, and maybe since President Johnson, and the unionization rate has declined steadily. And now there will be a new administration that's not going to be very supportive of unions," he said.

Union officials were more upbeat. Several labor leaders asserted that unions organized fewer members last year because they put so much money, energy and manpower into electoral politics. These leaders said labor would step up its organizing efforts, partly because the AFL-CIO has set organizing goals for its member unions.

"What's clear is that to stop any future decline organizing needs to stay absolutely on the front burner," Juravich said.

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