New Orleans I went by the gala reception on St. Charles Avenue last night to celebrate the fact that the SEIU International Executive Board was in town to see old friends and comrades. Past the music, food and short speeches, it was hard to find much evidence of good news for unions and organizing even from the union that has been categorically the single biggest success story over recent decades. The bloom is off the rose.
Part of the story is in the numbers which continue to slip and fall.
Bureau of Labor Statistics announced another slight drop last year of union membership compared to the overall non-farm workforce from 11.9 to 11.8%. Steven Greenhouse in the Times reports that union membership is now 14,760,000. The public sector percentage was 37% and about 7,560,000 and the private sector percentage is now only 6.9% with about 7,200,000. Private sector membership is clearly heading towards 5%, unless something serious and drastic happens.
The numbers could have been worse. There is speculation that the AFL-CIO is claiming 3,000,000 members from its Working America unit as part of their membership totals, which would be wild, since these are “canvassed” members rather than “real” dues paying members in local unions around the country. There are still scars on the ears of AFL-CIO staffers from 2008 who did phonebanking to the call list with that group and heard in no uncertain terms from many of these “members” that they had no idea they were part of a union?!? The BLS numbers come from the Current Population Survey of 60,000 households taken on a monthly basis so those are much more reliable indicators than those reported by unions themselves.
But, I’m grabbing at straws in saying that it could have been worse. This is plenty bad, and there’s no sign of anything being done in the labor movement to make it much better. Counting on the economy to make the numbers look a bit better is not a strategy!