26 April 2010

Union Membership Still Falling In Colorado

In late 2007, I noted that:

[I]n 1983 in Colorado, 11.2% of private sector workers (120,298 workers) and 24.1% of public sector workers (57,592 workers) were union members. . . .

As of 2006, in Colorado, 5.0% of the private sector work force (92,589 workers), and 22.8% of the public sector work force (82,564 workers) was made up of union members. Another 10,948 private sector workers and 10,096 public sector workers were in union covered work places but were not union members themselves.

Three years later, the picture continues to look worse for Colorado unions.

As of 2009, in Colorado, 4.5% of the private sector work force (83,789 workers) and 20.9% of the public sector work force (69,435 workers) was made up of union members. Another 12,979 private sector workers and 14,448 public sector workers were in union covered work places but were not union members themselves.

Union membership is down 8,800 workers (9.5% in absolute numbers) in the private sector, and 13,129 workers (15.9% in absolute numbers) in the public sector from 2006 to 2009 in Colorado. This is a drop of 0.5 perecentage points in the private sector and 1.9 percentage points in the public sector.

Union contract covered worekrs are down 6,769 workers in the private sector, and 8,777 workers in the public sector from 2006 to 2009 in Colorado. The percentage of union covered workers who are actually in the union is down in both the public and private sectors as well. The percentage drop in union contract covered workers is not as great as the drops in union membership, but the drops are still significant.

If you had asked me three years ago what I would have expected, I would have told you that I expected private sector unionization rates to continue to fall, but that public sector unionization would increase. I would have been wrong. Absolute losses in public sector union membership are particularly discouraging. I suspect that some of these losses are from an overall decline in United States Postal Service employment, one of the biggest little reported stories of sustained layoffs in the United States. But, the bad news is simply too big to have one cause.

Even with new, presumably more labor friendly members on the National Labor Relations Board, and some diluted version of the Employee Free Choice Act likely to emerge from Congress at some point, from a federal government led by a Democratic President and a Democratic party controlled Congress there is still little room for cheer in the union movement in Colorado.

Federal private sector labor relations law, after all, has little or no direct impact public sector union members. Public sector unions in the state have declined in the past three years, despite the fact that Democrats have controlled the statehouse for the last three years in Colorado. Governor Ritter, of course, has been decidedly ambivalent about the union movement handing state employee's unions wins, while vetoing legislation seen by the labor movement as important. Colorado's courts, however, have struck down as unconstitutional a very broadly written state "pay to play" initiative designed to mute union money in elections.

Colorado's public sector unions have had wins and losses on the political and legal fronts over the past few years, but few people would call the shifts decisive. Colorado has not had the moral equivalent of Ronald Reagan replacing striking air traffic control workers.

Also, as I've pointed out in the past, what public sector unions do, and what private sector unions do is not directly comparable. Public sector unions mediate tensions between management and workers in any already highly regulated civil service environment, and lobby for the interests of workers in the political system that employs them, as much as they focus on fattening member compensation. Private sector unions focus on much more basic protections for workers like creating remedies for arbitrary employment termination, and try to increase their member's compensation.

The private sector is also, of course, much larger than the public sector in Colorado.

One can look for short term causes of the declines in unionization in Colorado in the past three years, particular employers that have laid off workers, particular union organizing campaigns that failed, particular laws or cases that changed the legal environment. But, to some extent that misses the point.

The decline is part of a long term trend. Unionization rates are at record lows across the United States, have fallen to levels not seen since the 1920s, and have been falling for half a century. The post-industrial economy, apparently, will look more like the pre-industrial economy than it will like the industrial one.

The Great Depression brought breadlines and rent strikes and angry rallies by unemployed workers. The Great Recession has brought us birthers, the Tea Party, and protests against tax credits to make it easier to obtain health insurance.

Laid off auto workers are going quietly. A major recall of Japanese cars from Toyota that would draw Americans into foreign car lots was widely anticipated by economic futurists. Tom Clancy uses such a recall as one thread of many destabilizing the country. The Japanese business manga writers of "Japan, Inc." predicted much the same thing. The reality turned out to be more timid. Crowds of loyal customers swooped in to get recall inspired deals, and a month after the news broke, Toyota's sales trends were still better than Chrysler's. Korean based Hyundai snapped up "cars for clunkers" stimulus program participants. Half of cars (excluding light trucks) made in the United States are now made by "foreign" automakers.

Colorado has seen plenty of job creation in the past quarter-century, but union organizing has not captured many of the new jobs.

The life long careers unions existed to support seem scarce these days in the private sector, especially outside management. While some industries, like banking, have been consolidating headlong (and bank tellers, for whatever reason, have rarely sought to unionize), others, like construction, seem as fragmented as ever, or more so. And, the union movement in America has long been focus on the benefits to be secured from unionizing big shops or whole industries.

When I was in law school at the University of Michigan, close to the heartland of the automobile industry, the big discussion in labor law was about union busting. But, a decade and a half later, this diagnosis seems mismatched. Certainly, there is a virulent anti-union movement in conservative politics. Certainly, there are union busters. The Denver Post editorial page writes one screed after another denouncing the evil of unions like some 19th century partisan rag. But, the anti-union rhetoric seems oddly irrelevant, like reading translations of Saint Augustine railing from his Roman North African diocese against heresies and pagan practices nobody even remembers ever existed.

Incidents like a recent deadly oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, or deaths in yet another American coal mining accident used to rouse support for unions to force management to behave. Now, the instictive response is to wonder why federal regulators have been so ineffectual, and answer that Republicans appointed people who didn't believe in regulation to oversee the work. The need for stronger unions to protect worker safety, or failure of those already in place to do so, simply isn't a part of the discussion anymore.

When is the last time you remember a French style transit workers strike in the United States bringing the nation to a standstill? How many people even know what a general strike involves? Somehow, the American union movement seems to have become a solution nobody seems to remember how to apply to the nation's problems.

If the Democratic party, which has in recent memory received most union support, has any consolation, it is that the Republican method of getting boots on the ground to support its cause, politically involved evangelical churches, have also been lackluster: declining themselves or distancing themselves from a politics that has turned out to be toxic. Republican support for religious causes has also done more to alienate other parts of their base, than Democratic support for labor has to alienate the Democratic base.

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