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Silver Linings in the 2012 Union Membership Figures?
(Photo: Richard Hurd / Flickr)

Silver Linings in the 2012 Union Membership Figures?

(Photo: Richard Hurd / Flickr)

Union membership figures declined in 2012, and in spite of many inspiring and creative labor initiatives, there is every reason to think 2013 will be an extraordinarily difficult year for labor, past time to have an active political ally in the White House.

In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the union membership figures for 2012. Overall union membership declined from 11.8 to 11.5 percent. In the public sector, unionization dropped from 37 percent to 35.9 percent – an unusually big decline for one year – while private-sector union membership declined from 6.9 to 6.6 percent, its lowest percentage in almost a century.

Particularly worrying for unions are declines among state and municipal workers – now the heart of the labor movement – women workers, who accounted for 72 percent of the drop, and health care and construction workers. Despite a few bright spots – such as a significant increase among the growing ranks of Latino workers in states such as California – there’s no doubt that overall the figures provide dismal reading for American unions.

Despite the dire figures, some commentators have found reason to be upbeat. In the UK Guardian January 25, Michael Paarlberg, always an astute observer of US labor, puts a somewhat optimist spin on the BLS numbers. Paarlberg argues that the raw data doesn’t tell the whole story, and behind the depressing figures lie several more optimistic developments: unprecedented strikes among Walmart workers and fast food workers in New York City, organizing among domestic workers and stringent measures against wage theft in Chicago. Nor is Paarlberg alone in making this point. Surita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice, drew the same conclusion in the Huffington Post, while in the New York Times, Steve Greenhouse reported that some labor leaders found “bright spots” in the numbers.

There’s little doubt that Paarlberg’s stories are both inspirational and important. Indeed, he could have added several other examples to his list: the successful struggles of Latino port trucking drivers in LA against the Australian Toll Group; warehouse workers at IKEA suppliers in Virginia, Georgia and New Jersey; carwash workers and taxi drivers in Los Angeles and New York City; nonunion labor organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Domestic Workers United and Arise Chicago, and others.

But should we be looking for silver lining amidst the gloom? After all, what makes these stories so inspirational is that the workers have struggled, and occasionally prevailed, against almost insurmountable odds. And when the odds are stacked so heavily against you, in the long run, the house always wins. No one knows this better than right-wing casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Adelson spent $100 million on the 2102 election and lost big. But instead of licking his wounds, Adelson told the Wall Street Journal in December that he intends to spend double that amount this session promoting antiunion ballot initiatives at the state level, which is where the real labor battles will be fought in 2013.

One of the most worrying aspects of the BLS membership figures was the dramatic decline in unionization in Wisconsin (with 46,000 fewer union members than last year) and Indiana (56,000 fewer members), both states where Republicans have enacted antiunion laws. Michigan followed Indiana’s example, enacting right-to-work legislation in December 2012, and the former union stronghold will likely experience a similar decline in membership.

Worse still, the right-wing assault on labor rights is not even close to having run its course. This year will almost certainly see efforts to enact right-to-work legislation in several battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Maine, while Iowa and North Carolina (which has the dead lowest union density in the country) are considering enshrining right-to-work legislation in the state constitutions. Conservative lawmakers have introduced “paycheck protection” legislation – which prohibits the use of dues money for political activities, effectively undermining unions’ ability to participate in state politics – in Kansas and Missouri, with Florida and Pennsylvania next on their list. One Missouri Chamber of Commerce lobbyist explained that he needed the paycheck legislation “so we can get rid of public sector unions.” Several other states – including Kansas, Arizona, Iowa and Indiana – are considering bills attacking automatic dues check off. And the list of antiunion bills goes on. In short, just like the two previous years, 2013 promises to be a tough year in the statehouses.

But the BLS union membership figures are arguably even worse than the numbers suggest. If current rates of decline continue, private sector union membership could reach around 2 percent within a decade, and the surviving unions would have little capacity to help the struggles of workers like those at Walmart or IKEA. And there’s no iron law that says membership must decline by only half a percent per year. We could reach a point quite soon when unions are so weak politically and economically that membership simply falls off the edge of the cliff. Republican lawmakers and their billionaire allies like Adelson and the Koch Brothers smell blood, and they would like to reach that point sooner rather than later.

Herein lies unions’ problem. The right would do almost anything to kill them off, but since the 1970s, Democrats have been remarkably timid when it comes to defending them. President Obama is no exception. Unions played a critical role in his victories in 2008 and 2012 – when they were instrumental in helping him win in Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada – but have gotten precious little in return, except perhaps recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Last week, in a ruling the New Yorker correctly labeled a “judicial atrocity,” the D.C. Circuit Court ruled the recess appointments unconstitutional. The administration “strongly” opposes the judgment – which calls into question 9 decades of recess appointments – and the Supreme Court will likely determine the fate of the Obama NLRB and with it every decision that board has made in the past 12 months.

In the meantime, the Circuit Court decision has emboldened even further the GOP and its right-wing allies to attack the NLRB, although after two years of continuous assaults, it is doubtful they needed any further encouragement. Several Republicans members of Congress have insisted that the two Democratic members of the board appointed by recess should, in the words of Senator Lamar Alexander, “pack their bags and go home.” Others state that the board must cease its work immediately. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that if they refuse to resign, “Congress should stop funding the NLRB as soon as the continuing spending resolution expires in March.” Listening to their hyperbolic rhetoric one could easily forget that the board, now hemmed in by court decisions on most major issues, arguably has less ability to influence labor policy today than at any previous time in its 78-year history.

In response to these unprecedented attacks at the state and federal levels, President Obama has done very little. He has largely failed to use the bully pulpit of his office to support labor’s cause. He made no mention, for example, of the positive contribution of unions in his otherwise progressive inaugural speech. Contrast this with Governor Jerry Brown’s “state of the state” speech in California lavishing praise on unions for their support in the 2012 election: “I salute the unions – their members and their leaders. You showed what ordinary people can do when they are united and organized.”

There’s still time for Obama to act, but it is quickly running out for both him and the unions. Tens of millions of nonunion workers would like union representation, but their current chances of getting it are about as high as their chances of winning big at one of Sheldon Adelson’s casinos. President Obama might represent their last best hope.

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