WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Union membership in the United States rose in 2008 for the second straight year, accelerating a turnaround begun in 2007 that followed decades of decline, the government reported on Wednesday.
Union members accounted for 12.4 percent of employed wage and salary workers in 2008, up from 12.1 percent in 2007, said the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That increase meant the number of workers belonging to a union rose by 428,000 to 16.1 million, said the annual report.
There was a slight upturn in the union membership rate in 2007, to 12.1 percent from the 2006 level of 12.0 percent.
Despite two years of increases, unions still represent a much smaller proportion of U.S. workers than they did at their peak of power and influence in the mid-1950s, when about 26 percent of the workforce was unionized.
“It’s been a pretty steady decline over the past three decades,” said Steve Hipple, an economist at the bureau.
But the latest data represent “sort of a reversal of the decline over the past couple of years,” he said.
The upturn in union membership comes as President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats in Congress move to push through pro-labor policy initiatives. Unions were major supporters of Obama and the Democrats in the 2008 elections.
“Today’s numbers confirm what many working people already know — that if given the chance, American workers are choosing to join unions in larger numbers,” said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO labor group, in a statement.
President Obama is expected to sign within days the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would reverse a 2007 Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult to sue for pay discrimination. The act was approved by Congress on Tuesday over Republican attempts to block it.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2008 report found that government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than private-sector workers.
Education, training and library workers had the highest unionization rate at 38.7 percent. Among states, New York had the highest union member rate and North Carolina the lowest.
“In 2008, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $886 while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $691,” said the government report.
Unions are gearing up for a battle with business lobbyists later this year over a proposal that would make forming unions easier. Known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the proposal would allow employees to form a union if a majority of them in a workplace signed authorization cards.
Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh, editing by Gerald E. McCormick