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New Labor Stats Show Assault on Public Unions Is Working

Numbers 'reflect concerted attack on organized labor'

Jon Queally, staff writer

Union members and supporters protest right-to-work legislation at the Michigan Capitol on Dec. 6, 2012. (Photo:Jonathan Oosting/

As the Washington Post's Jim Tankersley points out and new data from the US Department of Labor released on Wednesday confirms, the Republican push to destroy public sector unions in the last several years is having its desired effect.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' new figures on unionization, the percentage of organized workers in the US took a sharp—and 'unusual'—decline last year, dropping from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012.

Moreover, as the New York Times highlights, the largest dip came not from the typical source of private union attrition caused by offshoring or factory closings, but from job losses in the public sector, which caused overall public sector union rates to drop more than full point in one year—from 37 percent to 35.9 percent.

Private sector unions—long in decline due to outsourcing linked to corporate globalization policies—now currently have about 7 million members, whereas public employee unions have roughly 7.3 million members.

The curious trend that Tankersley points out is the role that government-pushed austerity has played in union attrition. He writes:

The big culprit for last year’s drop doesn’t appear to be outsourcing (though union factory employment has fallen since the recession, while non-union employment has risen). The issue was austerity.

Specifically, state and local governments laid off a lot of workers last year to help balance their budgets. That means they let a lot of union members go. The Labor Department reports that more than half of all U.S. union members work in the public sector; government is nearly 36 percent unionized, while the private-sector union membership rate is less than 7 percent. (Last year’s stats suggest that some Republican governors’ efforts to reduce unionization in their state public sectors is working – Wisconsin posted a 2.1 percentage point drop in union membership from 2011 to 2012.)

Asking labor leaders to respond to the statistics on membership, Tankersley said they 'roundly' agreed that the drop in rates "reflected a concerted attack on organized labor and an austerity hit to the economy that affects everyone, not just folks with a union card."

“The economic crisis—and the politicians who took advantage of it for their own anti-worker purposes—had a negative impact,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told Tankersley.

And Richard Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s main union federation, added: “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.”

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