Workers may be sticking to unions again

Participants hold signs during an AFL-CIO rally on Capitol Hill in June 2007.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Here's some news you haven't heard in about 25 years: Union membership is up in this country. There's a report out today from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. It says workers holding union cards crept up ever-so-slightly as a percentage of the overall workforce last year. Not a whole bunch -- from 12 to 12.1 percent. So nobody's calling it a trend just yet. But Marketplace's Steve Tripoli found some interesting things in the numbers behind the numbers.


STEVE TRIPOLI: John Schmitt, who co-authored the report, says its most significant finding is that private-sector union membership grew.

JOHN SCHMITT: That really bucks a very long-term trend, where unionization rates have been declining very steadily -- from these data and we know from other data that go back for at least 30 years. So, a big turnaround for the labor movement.

Schmitt says the private sector's been the most resistant by far to unionizing. Yet unions are more successfully holding onto private-sector members as well as adding them.

Labor expert John Russo is at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He says a changing workforce featuring successful organizing of health care workers is behind the numbers. And he says stresses on the entire workforce play a role.

JOHN RUSSO: With the decline in real wages and the increasing amounts of work in terms of benefits and they have to pay for health care, I think this means that people really do need to have unions, and they once again are realizing this.

Today's report says California added lots of union members. The Midwest lost a lot -- in part because factory workers are now less unionized than the workforce as a whole. Manufacturing used to be the backbone of organized labor.

Report co-author John Schmitt says research shows half of all non-management workers would like to join a union.

SCHMITT: And I think with the economy looking a little bit difficult right now, and given the kind of stresses and strains that a lot of American workers are feeling, I think there's at least a potential for some sort of a return or resurgence of the labor movement.

Schmitt and Russo aren't calling this a turning point yet. But after years of very steady declines in union membership today's report was an attention-grabber.

I'm Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

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