In a year marked by backlash against organized labor in traditional union strong holds such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that union membership reached historic lows in 2012 as the result of that backlash along with other factors dwindled union ranks.

Organized labor lost 398,000 members in 2012 as the percentage of private sector union membership fell to an all time low of 6.6%. When both public and private sector employees are included the rate of union membership is almost doubled to 11.3% though that rate still represents a significant drop from the 11.8% represented in 2011. The rate of public sector union membership (35.9%) remained more than five times the rate of private sector union membership (6.6%), largely attributable to the lack of employee choice under many public sector organizing schemes and the influence unions have in electing their employers.

Although the number of employees represented by unions fell dramatically, certain sectors and areas were seemingly unaffected. Specifically, the percentage of healthcare employees actually increased from 9.3% to 9.6% as the total number of healthcare employees represented by unions rose by roughly 25,000 to 321,000. Similarly, the percentage of utility industry employees represented by unions increased and continues to lead all industries at 26.9%.

Geographically, California gained nearly 135,000 more union members and the rate of unionization increased from 18.2% to 18.4%. Though the raw numbers are less impressive, similar percentage increases were seen in the District of Columbia (9.9% to 10.3% ), Massachusetts (15.4% to 16.2%) and Texas (6.3 to 6.8). States that have traditionally been strong in union organizing - Illinois and New York, experienced a decrease.  Illinois dropped from 17.2% to 15.5% and New York dropped from 26.1% to 24.9%.

Although the causes of the overall drop in membership are myriad and include legislative change in several states as well as union organizers and resources diverted to electoral and other political causes, the effects are predictable... Organized labor must and will respond with aggressive efforts to increase their membership as a means of survival. The efforts will be both varied and targeted. 2013 will most certainly see concerted efforts to make it easier to organize through new NLRB regulations or rulings, increased use of corporate campaigns as well as traditional organizing drives focusing on the growing number of non-union service sector employees in the hospitality and healthcare industries. Likewise, in states like California with union friendly governors and legislatures, unions will inevitably continue to wield influence to aid their organizing efforts.

Management Missives

  • Although unions are down, they are far from out. Union free employers must be especially vigilant as organizing activities ramp up in 2013.
  • Although losing members in other industries, unions have had success in the healthcare and hospitality industries. The unions in these industries, especially the SIEU, CNA/NNU and UNITE-HERE, have already begun their aggressive organizing efforts, so employers in these industries should ensure they have a union avoidance program updated and in place as soon as possible.  Click here to learn  more about union organizing activities in the healthcare industry.
  • California employers should also examine whether their union avoidance program is adequate as the Golden State continues to be the goose that keeps on giving to the unions.
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