Union membership climbs nationally; drops in Oregon

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has some good news and bad news for organized labor.

The good news is that the aggressive focus on organizing new members by U.S. labor unions is beginning to pay off as union membership grew by 100,000 in 1998 after three years of decline.

The bad news is that the percentage of U.S. workers represented by a union continued to drop - from 14.1 to 13.9 percent - as the 2.2 million increase in the workforce outpaced organizing expansion.

In Oregon, union membership fell by 10,000 while Washington State increased its union ranks by 29,000.

The BLS reported that 16.2 million Americans belong to unions, with membership growing fastest in government and in the service sector.÷Membership in the public sector climbed from 37.2 to 37.5 percent, but dropped in the private sector from 9.7 to 9.5 percent, a decline attributed to the 126,000 drop in the number of unionized manufacturing jobs.

Kirk Adams, the new AFL-CIO organizing director, estimated that 400,000 workers joined unions in 1998, but growth numbers were lower because of downsizing and plant closings.÷He said that the number of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-supervised elections rose from 1,479 to 1,611 in the first half of 1998 compared to the same period in 1997.÷In addition, a higher percentage of these elections saw workers vote to organize, with unions winning 51.7 percent of the elections in that period, compared to 49.2 in 1997.

Washington State ranks fifth in the nation in new members, bringing its numbers up from 508,000 to 537,000. Union density in the Evergreen State is 21.2 percent, up from 20.5 percent in 1997.

In Oregon, union membership fell from 242,000 in 1997 to 232,000 last year. In 1996, 246,000 Oregonians carried union cards. The current figure represents 16.1 percent of the state's 1,440,994 workforce. In 1997, unions represented 17.6 percent of the 1.375 million workers and in 1996 unions had 18 percent of the 1.367 million workers.

"It's not a pretty picture, but it's a picture that makes a big difference in the lives of all Oregonians," said Jean Eilers, the national AFL-CIO's state director for Oregon. "As union membership declines, so do the wages and benefits of all workers."

Adams predicted the number of new union members will rise in future years, as the past several years' worth of AFL-CIO and member union training of organizers, the increased number of election wins and - after long employer stalling - first contracts finally translate into rising union membership nationwide.

"For example, in 1998, over 400,000 workers voted union," he said. "But I would guess fewer than half have a union today, because they don't have a first contract."

In Oregon, unions won 56 percent of all government-run elections, or 25 new bargaining units in 1998 (1,111 members). Several locals have won union elections without going through the NLRB, including about 850 new members by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 and 200 by Service Employees Local 49.

The BLS also reported that, as usual, union workers enjoyed higher wages and better fringe benefits than their non-union colleagues. "Median weekly earnings were about one-third higher," for union workers.

Median weekly earnings for all workers - the point where half the workforce earns more and half earns less - rose from $503 in 1997 to $523 last year. The median for union members rose from $640 to $659. The median for non-union workers rose from $478 to $499.

Most union members are between the ages of 25 and 64, with only 5 percent of young workers (16-24) saying they are union members.

February 19, 1999 issue

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