Labor pains: Union membership drops nationwide, but rebounds in Tennessee and Georgia

photo William B. Hawn, IV, right, and another man who declined to be identified sit in chairs on the sidewalk along Main Street with a sign that says "shame on Lupton Company." The men passed out information sheets on behalf of the Mid-South Carpenters Regional Council over a labor dispute with a subcontractor on the Craft Works job site at 201 W. Main Street.

By the numbers124,000 Number of union members in Tennessee in 2012, up from 115,000 the previous year171,000 Number of union members in Georgia in 2012, up from 153,000 in the previous year.166,000 Number of union members in Alabama in 2012, down from 178,000 in the previous year.14 million Number of union members nationwide in 2012, down from about 14.4 million in the previous yearLowest unionized statesThe states with the lowest rate of union members were all in the Southeast.1. North Carolina, 2.9 percent2. Arkansas, 3.2 percent3. South Carolina, 3.3 percent4. Mississippi, 4.3 percent5. Georgia, 4.4 percent6. Virginia, 4.4 percent7. Tennessee, 4.8 percentU.S. average, 11.3 percentSource: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union affiliations of employed wage and salary workers by state for 2012Union pay advantage* $943 - Median weekly earnings of union employees in 2012* $742 - Median weekly earnings of non-union employees in 2012Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Union membership fell last year to the lowest level since the 1930s as recession-battered states and municipalities shed workers and organized labor struggled to organize new members at growing private-sector companies.

Despite the nationwide decline, however, labor union membership rose across Tennessee and Georgia last year from job additions at traditionally unionized factories and construction sites and new growth from Georgia's growing movie industry.

"We don't have the union density that they do in the Midwest and Northern states, but we've seen some growth and we're hopeful for the future," said Charlie Flemming, president of the Georgia AFL-CIO.

Flemming said Georgia is poised to become the third biggest state for movie making, traditionally a heavily unionized business, behind only California and New York. A training center and movie studio in Fayetteville, Ga., is being developed by an investment group working with the Pinewood Studio Group in London.

"This could be a real growth industry in Georgia, and most of these workers are represented by unions," Flemming said.

The rebound in manufacturing and construction also helped boost overall union membership in Tennessee and Georgia by 27,000 workers during 2012 despite a nationwide loss of nearly 400,000 union members last year.

Across most of the country, cuts in teacher rolls and the growth of more right-to-work states that don't require workers at union shops to join the union trimmed the number of union members.

"Unions have been in decline for many years, but we may be at a bottom and could even see a mild resurgence in membership," said David Penn, director of the Business and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

Gary Moore, president of the AFL-CIO in Tennessee, said as workers have lost benefits and wages have been cut, more people are sympathetic to the need for representation.

"It's always easier to organize when people are being underpaid and mistreated and they feel like their backs are against the wall," he said. "That's where a lot more workers are today."

Even with last year's membership gains, however, union membership across Tennessee and Georgia is down by more than a third in the past decade. As a share of the workforce, both states also rank among the lowest in the country for union representation.

Nationwide, private sector membership is now at a 70-year low, and union membership as a percentage of the workforce has tumbled from 28 percent in 1954 to its current level of just over 11 percent.

Union critics claim that organized labor has lost most of its public support. Even its supporters concede that unions have been somewhat of a victim of their own success by getting state and federal governments to implement labor protection requirements into law, whether or not an employee has a union contract.

"The continued decline of union membership, even during four years of a labor-friendly administration, is a sign that organized labor is no longer serving the best interests of its members," said Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, an anti-union group based in Washington, D.C. "Unless unions start to give their members a reason to stay, or unless they can convince new members to join their ranks, then organized labor in America will only continue its slow decline into irrelevancy."

Nationwide, union membership fell from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent last year.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said the decline is due, in part, to "the political and ideological assaults on workers' rights that peaked over the past two years.

"This decrease in union membership highlights the painful fact that people are working harder but are making less and less," Trumka said in a statement after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the drop in union membership for 2012. "Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one."

Organizing battles

The United Auto Workers has tried unsuccessfully to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, and Communications Workers of America is trying to organize workers at T-Mobile call centers in Chattanooga and 16 other sites.

"Organizing is very expensive, and it gets fought now in the public sector as well as in the private sector," said Barry Hirsch, a labor economist at Georgia State University.

In Chattanooga, the Mid-South Carpenters Regional Council has hired picketers to display banners trying to shame companies or churches that don't use unionized construction crews. Over the past three years, the carpenters union has targeted Whirlpool, the Hampton Inn, the Lupton Co., and even the Regional History Museum, Christ United Methodist Church and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger for what the union claims is "desecration of the American way of life." The pickets have continued at several sites long after the buildings were completed.

The carpenters have protested against Coppinger since last year because of a labor dispute with the Wakefield Corp., a contractor that helped build Red Bank Middle School. Union officials declined to return repeated telephone calls. But Coppinger said last year that the decision about school buildings and hiring contractors is made by the Hamilton County Board of Education, not the county mayor or commissioner.

"These are nice guys I talk with every day, but I don't control that project," Coppinger said.

The picketers, who declined to identify themselves by name, are hired as hourly workers by the union but are not members of the union themselves.

Shame campaign

Last year, picketers hired by the Mid-South Carpenters Regional Council protested First Baptist Church in Dandridge, Tenn., with a sign reading, "Shame on Pastor Brown" for using nonunion workers to build a church addition.

Last May, the two men were arrested and charged with violating the sex offender registry act. Jefferson County sheriff deputies said the picketers were convicted sex offenders and were illegally within 20 feet of the church's day care property.

"It's hard to miss the irony, isn't it?" the church's pastor, Dr. Robert Brown, told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "I've said to several folks that I've done a lot of things I'm ashamed of, and this project wasn't one of them. It is also a bit ironic that these guys the union hired are not union workers."

Moore said he is unaware of the carpenters' "shame" campaign on building projects in East Tennessee. But he insists that labor unions help workers "by giving them a seat at the table" and helping to ensure the growth of America's middle class.

"Union workers are more apt to get better pay and have better benefits," he said.