Economics/Class Relations

So Much for Anarcho-Syndicalism: Union Membership at an All-Time Low

USA Today

In 2011, 11.8% of employed workers were union members, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s most recent figures. A look at union membership by state:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

CHARLOTTE – What a difference four years make.

  • President Obama delivers a statement at the White House on Aug. 31, 2011, as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka looks on. The AFL-CIO is refusing to financially support this year's Democratic National Convention.By Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

    President Obama delivers a statement at the White House on Aug. 31, 2011, as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka looks on. The AFL-CIO is refusing to financially support this year’s Democratic National Convention.

President Obama moves toward a Democratic National Convention here this week with many labor organizations, such as the AFL-CIO, refusing to financially support the three-day political extravaganza — in sharp contrast to the $8.3 million they contributed toward the Denver convention that nominated him in 2008.

Unions leaders opposed the selection of a convention city in a state where teachers and other public employees are barred by law from collective bargaining. At the same time, organized labor has failed to gain traction on key priorities during Obama’s administration, including legislation that would have allowed workers to join a union by signing a card instead of holding a secret ballot vote.

And unions already have expended millions in the past two years on state battles, beating back legislation in Ohio that would have curbed bargaining rights for the state’s public employees and pushing a failed recall against Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker.

Many labor leaders, however, said their snub of the political gathering in North Carolina will not stop them from mounting what they say will be one of their biggest political efforts this fall to re-elect Obama, who is relying on heavy labor spending to counter deep-pocketed Republican super PACs.

The Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that opened the door to unlimited corporate donations to super PACs also freed unions to spread their voter outreach to non-union homes, unleashing what unions say will be their biggest voter-outreach effort yet.

“The convention is just a multiday event,” said Jim Spellane, a spokesman for the 750,000-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of the unions that has declined to underwrite the Charlotte convention but is deploying members across the country to register voters on Democrats’ behalf.

“What matters most is what happens between the convention and Election Day,” Spellane said.

Earlier this summer, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced the 12-million-member labor federation would not make any “major monetary” contributions to the convention. Instead, it is directing its money with get-out-the-vote efforts and recently announced a partnership with the liberal group to deploy nearly 400,000 volunteers by Election Day.

By Morry Gash, AP

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker celebrates his victory in a recall election on June 5 in Waukesha, Wis.

AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer said the goal is to build a “permanent mobilization” force, not just to turn out voters in November, but also to “hold politicians accountable” long after Election Day.

The selection of North Carolina as the convention site is “almost an insult” to unions, said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Even so, Chaison said, labor leaders have little choice but to back Obama. “They know that if Democrats don’t win the Congress and the White House, it will be very close to the last gasp for the organized labor movement,” he said.

Declining membership

Nationally, organized labor has been on a long decline. A slim majority of Americans — 52% — approve of labor unions, down from a peak of 75% in 1957, a Gallup Poll released Friday shows.

Union membership also has dropped sharply — to 14.8 million or 11.8% of U.S. workers in 2011, down from 20.1% in 1983, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nowhere is the proportion of unions lower than in North Carolina, where 2.9% of workers are union members.

The 2010 and 2011 elections gave Republicans control of 29 governorships and brought new threats to union clout. Last year, Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin pushed through measures to curb collective bargaining by public employees as part of their drive to trim state budgets.

A June 5 union-led recall effort against Walker failed. In Ohio, however, organized labor, aided by some 2,400 volunteers with Obama’s campaign organization, defeated a law pushed by Republican Gov. John Kasich that would have banned public-sector strikes and curtailed the bargaining powers of more than 350,000 public employees in the state.

Those fights in two presidential battleground states won by Obama in 2008 galvanized rank-and-file workers and have boosted unions’ ground operations ahead of the presidential election, union officials say.

“Firefighters have awakened from a long slumber. They care about politics now,” said Doug Stern, a 16-year veteran of the Cincinnati Fire Department who was part of the “We are Ohio Coalition” that helped roll back the anti-union law.

Seeing Kasich campaign with Republican nominee Mitt Romney in Ohio only helps to stoke union anger ahead of Election Day, Stern said.

Speaking to USA TODAY reporters at the Republican National Convention last week, Kasich said those workers had a personal stake in the fight. “People really were directly affected,” he said. “I don’t know if that carries over to something like a presidential campaign.”

Although most unions back Democrats, some law enforcement groups have backed Republicans. The 325,000-member Fraternal Order of Police supported Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, four years ago. The group’s 54-member national board meets Friday in Ohio to decide whom to support in this election.

Unions haven’t always agreed with Obama, either.

This year, for instance, he signed off on a free-trade pact with Colombia, over the objection of U.S. unions who cited its country’s record of violence against labor leaders. And his administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top school-improvement program links teacher evaluations, in part, to students’ test scores, a move long resisted by teachers unions.

However, Romney has drawn teachers’ ire by making a voucher-like program the centerpiece of his education plan. Under his proposal, $25 billion in federal money would be available for students to attend a public, private, online or charter school of their choice.

Romney has been fiercely critical of unions. Organized labor, Romney told a crowd in May in Lansing, Mich., has “contributed to disappearing companies, disappearing industries and disappearing jobs.”

The party platform approved last week at the Republican convention in Tampa calls for a national right-to-work law and accuses Obama of helping to concentrate “power in the Washington offices of union elites.”

Strong relationship

“The relationship is strong,” said Brian Weeks, the political director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees of his union’s ties to Obama. “We didn’t get everything we wanted but we knew the challenge he faced with a Congress that opposed a progressive agenda.”

The union has contributed to the Charlotte convention, Weeks said. He would not say how much the 1.6 million-member union has given to the event nor how much it will spend on Obama’s behalf this fall, but he said about 33,000 new people became active in the union’s state battles in the past two years.

“We will spend whatever it takes to support our members and the middle class in these fights,” he said.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), meanwhile, is planning what it calls “the largest and most-targeted political field campaign” in its 91-year history. The goals include making 13 million phone calls and knocking on more than 3 million doors to reach union members, young voters, African Aericans and Latinos in eight swing states.

Brandon Davis, the SEIU national political director, said the goal is not just a victory, but a “mandate.”

Last week, telephone company worker Norwood Orrick joined the protests outside the Republican convention hall. This fall, the 47-year-old union activist from Tampa plans to knock on doors to help Obama and other Democrats on the ballot, he said.

“The Democrats could be much stronger in their support of unions,” Orrick said. “But when the other side is attacking you, you are forced to respond.”

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