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Unions See Increased Membership in Recession

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For Second Straight Year, Union Membership Increased in 2008,  According to Goverment Stats

WASHINGTON – Union membership in the United States increased by 428,000 to 16.1 million in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The percentage of the workforce that has a union also increased from 12.1 percent to 12.4 percent last year, continuing a second year of growth.

"Today's numbers confirm what many working people already know -- that if given the chance, American workers are choosing to join unions in larger numbers," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "Workers in unions are much more likely to have health care benefits and a pension than those without a union; in today's economy, that's the difference between sinking and swimming."

The advantages of having a union on the job were clear in 2008. Last year, median weekly pay for union members was $886 compared to $691 for those who were not represented by unions.

The growth in union membership comes at a time when workers say they want and need unions. Seventy-eight percent of the public supports legislation that will make it easier for workers to bargain with their employers and 60 million workers would join a union today if they had the opportunity, according to research by Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

Much of the growth in union membership came through growth in unionized industries, especially in the public sector.  Analysts estimate that only a small percentage of the growth came through workers forming new unions through the company-dominated National Labor Relations Board process.   Only 70,000 workers were able to form a union through the NLRB process in 2007, for example.  Today, most workers who form new unions do so after their employer has agreed to recognize their union through a majority sign-up process.

"In today's economy, America's working men and women need a fair shot at forming a union, now more than ever.  The Employee Free Choice Act will give workers the freedom to bargain with their employers for better benefits, wages, and job security, and it will allow them - - not their company - - to decide how to form their union," Sweeney concluded. (-more-)

Private sector union membership grew from 7.5 percent to 7.6 percent in 2008.  The main increase came from public sector union membership, where workers are less likely to face strong employer opposition to unions. Union membership in the public sector grew from 35.9 percent in 2007 to 36.8 percent in 2008.

Union membership among women grew again in 2008, continuing a trend.  The percentage of women workers belonging to unions increased to 11.4 percent and women now comprise 44.5 percent of union membership, representing four consecutive years of increase in the overall share of union members.  Union membership among men increased for the first time since 1999, resulting in a .4 percentage point increase in union density to 13.4%.  

Employment of white, black and Hispanic workers all declined significantly, but union membership and the percentage of union membership increased among these groups.  Employment among Asian and other workers increased, but union membership among Asian workers dropped slightly. 

A factor that may have led to the growth in union membership, despite the economic downturn, is the increased job security afforded by a union contract.  Similarly, research shows that unionized companies are not more adversely impacted than non-union companies in economic downturns.

Another factor that may account for the increase in union membership is the push at the state level to give workers the freedom to bargain collectively. In states like N.J., N.M., Col., Ill., N.Y., Mich., Kan., and W. Va., workers campaigned for the freedom to form unions through state legislatures and governments.

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