WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. labor unions lost 326,000 members in 2006, the most in three years, leaving only 12 percent of employed workers as union members, the Labor Department said on Thursday.
The government’s annual report, which showed a resumption of a decades-long decline in union membership after a pause in 2005, comes as the labor movement prepares for a legislative battle to make it easier for workers to become unionized.
Union membership, which peaked in the 1950s when about one-third of all U.S. workers carried union cards, has been in a declining trend in part because heavily unionized industries shrank, moved out of the country or automated and newer industries that replaced them had far thinner unionization rates.
Unions’ 15.4 million members accounted for 12 percent of workers last year, down from 12.5 percent in 2005, the biggest drop in the percentage of union workers since 1995, the department said. Not only did the number of union members drop, but the number of nonunion workers rose, it said.
Even among government workers, where union membership is most dense, unions lost a net 52,000 members last year as the percentage of members fell to 36.2 percent from 36.5 percent.
In the private sector, only 7.4 percent of workers were union members last year, down from 7.8 percent, as unions lost 274,000 members.
Unions’ losses last year reflect a “deindustrialization” trend, manufacturing plant moves to low union-density southern states and privatization of government jobs, said Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the AFL-CIO labor federation.
Acuff also said the decline shows the need for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to unionize if a majority sign cards or a petition. Labor law now allows employers to insist that workers hold an election, which delays the process and often involves intense campaigning.
“We’ve got a horribly broken labor law,” he said.
Business groups are preparing to oppose the union measure, saying it deprives workers of a secret-ballot vote.
The department said median weekly earnings of full-time union members was 30 percent higher than those of nonunion workers last year, up from a 29 percent difference in 2005. It said the value of union contracts was not the only factor contributing to the disparity.
The most union-dense states were Hawaii (24.7 percent), New York (24.4 percent) and Alaska (22.2 percent), while the least union-dense states were North and South Carolina (3.3 percent each) and Virginia (4 percent).