Union ranks shrink despite vigorous organizing efforts

Union ranks shrink despite vigorous organizing efforts

September 5th, 2011 by Dave Flessner in News


Eight states had union membership rates under 5 percent last year. The states with the lowest share of workers belonging to a union, in order, are:

  1. North Carolina, 3.2 percent
  2. Georgia, 4 percent
  3. Arkansas, 4 percent
  4. Louisiana, 4.3 percent
  5. Mississippi, 4.5 percent
  6. South Carolina, 4.6 percent
  7. Virginia, 4.6 percent
  8. Tennessee, 4.7 percent

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Number of workers belonging to a union in 2010 vs. prior year:

• Tennessee, 4.7 percent, down from 5.1 percent

• Georgia, 4 percent, down from 4.6 percent

• Alabama, 10.1 percent, down from 10.9 percent

• Nationwide, 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

From his downtown Atlanta office, Georgia's top labor leader has seen the flock of construction cranes that once filled the city's skyline go nearly extinct amid the city's worst building slump in decades.

"The cranes we saw everywhere five years ago are gone and, when you are not building, that affects all of the construction trades," Georgia AFL-CIO President Richard Ray said. "We haven't lost hope, but our numbers certainly have been hurt by this recession."

As Americans pause on Labor Day to celebrate the value of work, Ray and other union leaders are struggling to maintain their hold on the construction, manufacturing and other industries where unions once represented most workers.

With the decline of such industries and the rise of nonunion service and professional jobs, the share of workers belonging to labor unions in Tennessee and Georgia fell by nearly half in the past decade. Union members now comprise less than 5 percent of the area's workforce.

Tennessee and Georgia were among only eight U.S. states with under 5 percent of their workforces in some type of labor union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Labor leaders blame the poor economy, outsourcing of industries and anti-union campaigns by employers for the membership decline across the South.

"Our numbers are down, but organized labor is still a strong force in Tennessee," said Tennessee's new state AFL-CIO president, state Rep. Gary Moore, D-Joelton. "We will continue to press forward and fight for the rights of working men and women."

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 78 Tennessee workers died in workplace accidents and nearly 150,000 were injured on the job.

"We need to lower those numbers to ensure we have a safer workplace," said Moore, who worked on safety concerns during his 32 years with the Local 140 Firefighters union in Nashville. "Unions have a long history of helping protect workers on the job, and in this economy people need those protections more than ever."

Laws lessen union interest

To some extent, unions have been victims of their own success. Many of the occupational safety requirements, overtime benefits and wage-and-hour protections unions fought for in the past are now the law of the land.

In an economy where workers change jobs more frequently, many are reluctant to pay union dues typically equal to one to three hours of wages a week, especially when many job protections already are written into law.

"Many of the benefits that all workers enjoy wouldn't be here without unions," said Sean Paul Kimball, a business agent for Iron Workers, Local 704, and the new president of the Chattanooga Area Labor Council, a coalition of 15 local labor unions. "It's tough in right-to-work states like Tennessee and Georgia when so many employers bad-mouth unions. But unions give workers a voice and help ensure they have basic benefits and a livable wage."

Kimball said he hopes to reverse the decline in union membership by letting people know the advantages of belonging to a union.

Unions use new tactics

To maintain their membership, Kimball and other union leaders are using new tactics to gain support and organize different types of industries.

The Chattanooga Area Labor Council is not sponsoring a Labor Day rally today, but on Sunday the council marked the weekend celebration with a sermon by Leroy Griffith, pastor at Renaissance Presbyterian Church, on the value of labor.

In addition to getting support from the clergy, some unions are using pickets and demonstrations against businesses that don't use union labor for construction projects or buy products from nonunion companies.

The Mid-South Carpenters Regional Council, for instance, is picketing outside Lowe's and Best Buy stores with banners urging "shame on Whirlpool appliances for desecration of the American Way of Life."

The pickets stem from a labor dispute with Bock Construction, which is working on Whirlpool's new Cleveland, Tenn., plant.

UAW organizing

Leaders such as United Auto Workers President Bob King vowed last year to organize at least one of the foreign auto plants that have located in the South over the past two decades. UAW Regional Director Gary Casteel said this summer the union wants to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.

UAW spokeswoman Michele Martin declined last week to discuss the union's plans or interest in the 2,000-employee VW assembly plant in Chattanooga.

But Peter Morse, a partner in the law firm in Indianapolis who represents several domestic and foreign car manufactures, said the UAW could try to get a toehold in the region by organizing auto suppliers or segments of the assembly plant staff where discontent may be greatest. UAW has said it will spend up to $60 million for organizing efforts in the South.

"It's very difficult to get a majority of the thousands of workers at these plants to be angry and want a union at one time," Morse said. "But as an alternative strategy, we may to try to break up the staff and go after the weakest link inside the plant or to target smaller suppliers to those plants.

"They can try to catch a lot of 2-pound smallmouth bass and leave the tarpon fishing for later," he said.

To organize a work site, a majority of workers must sign a petition asking the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election for the employees to unionize. If more than half the voting workers say they want a union, the employer must recognize the union and begin negotiations for a contract.

Directors of the NLRB are appointed by the U.S. president, and the board recently has agreed to allow for quicker union votes and to require employers to do more to alert workers of their organizing rights.

"This is the most pro-union NLRB we've been in many years, and when you have a union like the UAW vowing to organize the South, you have to take that seriously," Morse said.

Connect with the Times Free Press on Facebook