Three-Year Growth in Union Membership Narrowed to 150,000
Membership Up Among Women and Professionals
Economic shifts in 2000 reduced the net three-year gain in union membership to 150,000, according to new data released January 18 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of union members in the U.S. is 16.26 million compared to 16.48 million members in 1999, 16.21 million in 1998 and 16.11 million in 1997.
Union membership increased this year among some groups which are key to unions' future growth, including women and professionals. Union membership increased by 152,000 among women and by 58,000 among professionals and related services. Union membership also grew among African-Americans and Latinos.
Not included in the BLS numbers is union membership in Puerto Rico where unions have focused a great deal of recent organizing attention, helping 80,000 workers form unions.
Shifts in union membership by gender, race and sector indicate that unions are moving with the economy, but that gains in growth sectors did not offset losses in traditionally unionized sectors, like manufacturing. This decline was exacerbated by sharp declines in employment in manufacturing—a trend that has been progressing since the Asian crisis of early 1998, despite overall growth in the economy.
"While we've made great progress in turning the tide, we're clearly not where we need to be," said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. "Every union needs to do more. We need to refocus and rededicate ourselves to ensuring that every working person who wants a union in this nation has that opportunity. We can only overcome economic shifts and maintain a strong voice for working families by aggressively helping workers to organize."
Several factors affect union membership levels, according to the Economic Policy Institute, including: whether unionized facilities are growing or shrinking; whether unionized facilities are closing; whether new facilities are opening up with or without a union; and what level of new organizing is taking place. Much of last year's manufacturing loss was concentrated in heavily unionized industries.
Various indicators point to steady efforts by unions to organize. Union win rates in National Labor Relations Board elections, for example, were up for the first six months of 2000, compared to the first six months of 1999, according to BNA data.
At least 400,000 workers organized unions in 2000, according to internal AFL-CIO and affiliate union data. That's below the organizing level of 1999 when 600,000 workers formed unions. (Some of the 1999 gain reflects the culmination that year of large multi-year efforts in Puerto Rico and among Los Angeles home care workers.) The number of workers who formed unions in 2000 is comparable to the 425,000 who formed unions in 1998. In order to grow in a changing economy, unions need to organize between 500,000 and a million workers a year, the AFL-CIO has said.
Many of the workers who formed unions in 2000 were from expanding sectors of the economy, indicating unions' positioning for future growth. For example, 1,200 Cingular Wireless workers in Illinois won a union with CWA in November. These "new economy" workers won a union because CWA members used their bargaining power with the parent company, SBC, to make sure the employer would honor the workers' choice to have a union. In addition, there has been recent interest among some "dot.com" workers to form unions, such as at Amazon.com. Doctors have also recently been forming unions, as have other health care professionals like nurses.
Young workers are increasingly open to unions. Polling shows that a majority of young workers ages 18-34 who don't have a union say they would likely vote for one. Among young people who formed unions in 2000 were teaching assistants who joined the UAW at the University of Washington and New York University where graduate employees were the first to form a union at a private university.
Women are forming unions faster than are men, according to new data by Cornell University. Their research shows that 55 percent of workers who won their union through a National Labor Relations Board election were women, and 27 percent were women of color. The 9,300 home care workers who built their union in Sacramento with SEIU were mostly women of color. As contingent workers, many experts once considered them unlikely to form unions.
Unions are addressing the need for growth. In August of 2000, the AFL-CIO Executive Council laid out a four-point plan for building the labor movement that includes setting a one-million- member a year organizing pace. Each affiliated union has a designated share of the growth goals, and some unions are already meeting their share.
In addition, unions are training and hiring more organizers. In 2000, the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute trained more than 2,000 people to work on organizing campaigns, a majority of whom were women and people of color.
The trends in union membership indicate how difficult it is for workers to form unions under current labor law, despite their increased efforts. Union growth was lowest in those industries where, according to a Cornell University study, management opposition to organizing continues to be the most aggressive, and growth was highest in the non-profit sector where employer opposition is much less. For-profit employers were twice as likely as non-profit employers to illegally dismiss workers for union activity, according to the study. Increasingly, elected leaders, community groups, and religious leaders are demanding that companies stop breaking the law and hindering their workers' efforts to form unions.
The AFL-CIO represents 13 million working men and women.