Unions suffer drop in membership

Originally Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2013, 5:18 pm
Last Updated: Aug. 17, 2013, 10:50 pm
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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

The union workforce in the Quad-Cities has shrunk by a third during the last 20 years although labor officials say they are starting to make up lost ground.

In 1992, more than one in five workers in the metropolitan area was a member of a union. By 2012, union membership had fallen from 22.3 percent of the workforce to 14.1 percent, still above the national rate of 11.3 percent.

The overall decline in union membership masks a sharp divergence in union membership among government workers and private sector employees.

Government workers are about as likely to be union members in the Quad-Cities as they were 20 years ago, according to the Union Membership and Coverage Database, which uses census data to track labor trends.

In the Quad-Cities in the early 1990s, an average of 45 percent of government workers were part of a union. The rate has largely held steady since then.

In contrast, union membership among private sector workers has fallen precipitously over the same period in the local area, mirroring a national decline.Last year, just 9.1 percent of private sector workers in the Quad-Cities were union members, down from an average of 20 percent in the first half of the 1990s.

Serious implications for income

The fall in union membership has serious implications for household income, say labor officials and advocates, and also weakens the political strength of organized labor.

In 2012, among full-time workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $742, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tom Moritz, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 431 in the Quad-Cities, said union membership in the Quad-Cities has fallen as traditional factory jobs have departed.

The UFCW's main base of members locally is at the Kraft Foods plant in Davenport. The union also has members in area nursing homes.

Mr. Moritz sees a growing divide between the rich and the poor as one that eventually will see people turn back to unions.

"We are seeing a separation of the classes again, where the wealthy are getting wealthier and the middle class is being depleted," he said. "At some point, people we will see that and it will create an organizing opportunity."

Mr. Moritz was returning Friday from a union convention in Chicago where there was discussion of ways to organize in the growing retail and restaurant sectors. "The workplace is changing and unions will change with it," he said.

Struggling for retail impact

Unions have struggled to make an impact in the retail sector, with the union membership in sales and related occupations just 2.9 percent nationally, according to a 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey.

Private sector industries with higher unionization rates include transportation and utilities at 20.6 percent in 2012 and construction at 13.2 percent.

But the professions most likely to have high union membership are local government jobs like firefighters and teachers, which nationally had a union membership rate of 41.7 percent last year.

University of Iowa professor Colin Gordon, the author of "Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality," said the divergence in union membership between government and private sector jobs has had political consequences.

Public sector workers have been targeted as "uniquely privileged and protected" in recent years because they have maintained union protections and benefits that many in the private sector have lost, Mr. Gordon said.

"Some public sector workers, simply put, enjoy the wages and benefits and economic security that all workers used to enjoy," he said.

The decline in union membership has taken political power away from workers and ceded ground to groups with other interests, he added.

"It makes an immense difference in a local setting to have 40 or 50 or 60 percent of workers belonging to independent democratic institutions with the capacity to shape local politics," Mr. Gordon said. "The collapse of union coverage to under 10 percent yields that ground to others, usually business or booster groups."


But it's not all doom and gloom for organized labor. Some local unions are growing.

Tom McCune, business manager with the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 25 in Rock Island, said his local has increased its membership by 8 percent in the last decade and now has between 1,400 and 1,500 members.

This year has been particularly good for Local 25, Mr. McCune said, with his membership at "full employment" on different projects across the region.

There's also optimism locally in the ranks of the United Auto Workers. The union was a powerhouse at the end of the 1970s, with 10,000-plus members in the Quad-Cities region, said UAW Community Action Program director Tom Ohlsen.

Now, the UAW has about 4,500 members locally, excluding retirees, Mr. Ohlsen said. He's a member of UAW Local 1414 at McLaughlin Body Co.

Mr. Ohlsen blames the loss of jobs at places like the former Case-IH plant in East Moline and free trade agreements that made it easier to move jobs overseasfor the decline.
Although the UAW's power has declined, membership is now younger and more diverse, he said.

The UAW has had some success organizing in casinos on the East Coast, Mr. Ohlsen said, and casinos could hold potential in the Quad-Cities for union growth. But he wasn't aware of any attempts to unionize workers at the local casinos.

Political clout

Unions have used their political muscle in the Quad-Cities and beyond for decades to support the Democratic Party.State Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson, is an exception to that. He regularly receives endorsements from labor.

Rep. Moffitt has watched union jobs in the manufacturing sector at places like the former Maytag plant in Galesburg leave the region during the past 20 years but he doesn't blame unions.

"It's an indication of changing times and a more global economy," Rep. Moffitt said.

Rep. Moffitt said it was a mistake to assume that unions made the region uncompetitive in attracting new jobs. Unionized workplaces generally provide quality labor, he said.

"The concept of a trained workforce and union labor has helped to build the middle class," he said.

At 14.1 percent of the workforce, union membership in the Quad-Cities was below the Illinois rate of 15.5 percent. In Iowa, the rate was 12.4 percent. Twenty years ago, Illinois had a union membership rate of 21.9 percent. In Iowa, the rate was 16.7 percent.

The statistics from the Union Membership and Coverage Database are compiled by Barry Hirsch, Georgia State University, and David Macpherson, Trinity University.

The database uses numbers from the Current Population Survey, a monthly household survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unions and the Quad-Cities

Quad Cities union membership
Union members  Percent of workforce
2012: 22,596  14.1   
2008: 14,775  11.8
2004:  25,874 16.5
2000: 18,083 11.4
1996: 30,029 20.6
1992: 30,199 22.3

Public vs. private sector union membership
(as a percentage of the workforce)

Private 18.7
Public  42
Private  8.8
Public  44.5
Private  9.1
Public  50.9
Source: unionstats.com


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