By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
January 21, 2001
The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent, its lowest point in six decades.
In releasing its survey of union membership last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that the number of union members declined by 200,000 last year to 16.3 million, a discouraging development for the labor movement at a time it is straining to reverse the decline.
Economists offered several explanations for the decline, including retirements by union members, layoffs of many unionized workers because of foreign competition and the failure of unions to organize enough additional members to offset such losses.
"There are still many large economic forces acting against labor's holding on to the numbers it has," said Tom Juravich, director of the labor studies center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Last year's membership decline was a blow to union leaders after they had boasted of an apparent turnaround in 1999. That year union membership climbed by 240,000, its largest increase in more than a decade. In addition, the percentage of workers in unions remained steady at 13.9 percent, giving unions hope that they had arrested a steady decline in that percentage.
Despite small jumps and declines from year to year, the overall unionization rate has fallen compared with recent decades. Last year's 13.5 percent unionization rate was down from 20 percent in 1983 and a peak of 35 percent in the 1950's.
For unions, one embarrassing aspect of the report was that the membership among private-sector workers fell to 9 percent, down from 9.4 percent in 1999. That has left unions with strong bargaining leverage in a handful of industries, including aircraft, steel and autos.
In contrast, membership among government workers rose to 37.5 percent from 37.3 percent. About 9.1 million of the nation's union members work in the private sector, while 7.1 million are government workers.
The A.F.L.-C.I.O. sought to put the best face on last year's slide, noting that membership was still up 150,000 from three years ago. Leaders of the labor federation said much of the drop stemmed from the loss of 160,000 manufacturing jobs in 2,000.
The decline came after John J. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.- C.I.O., had prodded unions to invest more money and personnel toward organizing more members. Last year, the .F.L.-C.I.O. said, unions organized 400,000 new members, compared with less than 100,000 in 1995, the year Mr. Sweeney became the federation's president.
But Mr. Sweeney said that for unions to add members on a net basis, after accounting for retirements and layoffs, they needed to recruit 500,000 to one million new members each year.
Leo Troy, professor of labor economics at Rutgers University, voiced skepticism that American unions would ever substantially increase their numbers. Professor Troy noted that the most rapid job growth was in fields like financial services and high technology where unions have little presence. He added that globalization was causing layoffs and even plants closings at many unionized operations, which often have higher wage and benefit costs than foreign competitors.
"What happened last year is a continuation of a long-term decline in the unionization rate," Professor Troy said. "I don't think unions can turn it around. We've had the most favorable pro-union administration in office since President Carter, and maybe since President Johnson, and the unionization rate has declined steadily. And now there will be a new administration that's not going to be very supportive of unions."
Union officials were more upbeat. Several labor leaders asserted that unions organized fewer members last year because they threw so much money, energy and manpower into electoral politics. These leaders said labor would step up its organizing efforts, partly because the A.F.L.-C.I.O. has set organizing goals for its member unions.
Labor leaders said they had grown increasingly successful in organizing low-paid workers, like janitors and home health aides, as well as high- paid professionals, including doctors and psychologists. But such gains have been offset by the steady erosion of employment in labor's core industries, like autos and steel.
"What's clear is that to stop any future decline organizing needs to stay absolutely on the front burner," Professor Juravich said. "There is no substitute for organizing."