The latest figures for US trade union membership tell two stories. One is the story of the effect of austerity on trade union membership levels; but the deeper story is about how austerity hits jobs and living standards. The two are inexorably linked.
AFLCIO President Rich Trumka said of the latest statistics:
“Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one, as today’s figures on union membership demonstrate.
“Union membership impacts every other economic outcome that matters to all workers – falling wages, rising health care costs, home foreclosures, the loss of manufacturing jobs and disappearing retirement benefits. Collective action through unions remains the single best way for working people to effect change. But our still-struggling economy, weak laws and political as well as ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership, and in the process have also imperiled economic security and good, middle class jobs.”
The figures released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that union membership fell over the past year to 14.4 million workers (it was 17.7m in 1983 when the data series began), a drop in union density from 11.8% to 11.3% (employment numbers in the US increased sslightly due to the economic recovery underway, so membership numbers fell by less than the decline in density suggests.)
A big reason for the reduction in membership and density over the year was the reduction in public sector employment, where there are nearly 400,000 fewer union members, from teachers in the classroom to police and firefighters. In manufacturing, the jobs that have returned so far are largely low-wage, non-union jobs. But this decline in membership is not just bad for unions – it is bad for working people generally.
The AFLCIO’s analysis includes a very informative chart which shows that union membership and workers’ living standards are declining at a surprisingly consistent rate. But union members continue to benefit significantly from that membership, earning on average 27% more than non-union members (median earnings of $943 per week rather than $742 – roughly £30k a year compared with just under £24k).
And the other hopeful sign in the data is that union membership (which is concentrated in the industrial states of the mid-West, New York and California) is actually growing in California (where one in ten US citizens live), and the southern states of Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. Union membership is also growing among Asians and Hispanics.