The number of workers in unions rose by 162,000 in 2013 from the previous year, according to data released Jan. 24 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
These upturns, the U.S. Department of Labor agency said, were led by an increase of 281,000 workers in private-sector unions. Strong gains in construction and manufacturing, against a background of strike actions by low-wage workers in the private sector played a significant role in the increases. Destructive, politically motivated layoffs of public-sector workers, however, continued to hurt overall public-sector union membership, leaving the total percentage of the workforce that is unionized virtually unchanged.
“Wall Street’s Great Recession cost millions of America’s workers their jobs and pushed already depressed wages down even further. But in 2013, America’s workers pushed back,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka of the figures released by the BLS. “At the same time, these numbers show that as unorganized workers have taken up the fight for their right to a voice on the job, union employers are hiring— creating good jobs our economy desperately needs.”
Despite the overall gains of 2013, workers in the public sector continued to bear the brunt of the continuing economic crisis, weak labor laws and political assaults on their rights on the job. In Wisconsin for example, political attacks on public-sector workers’ right to collectively bargain resulted in drops in membership. Fundamentally, federal, state and local governments continued to lay off needed public workers, leading to an overall loss of 118,000 union members.
Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said the figures again show that union members continue to have higher weekly median earnings than nonunion workers—$ 950 a week compared to $750 a week. He said union members also have greater access to health care, retirement savings plans, sick and vacation leave than workers who don’t have a union on the job.
“Workers’ ability to form unions and engage in collective bargaining has been a cornerstone of a strong middle class,” Perez said. “The decline in union membership over the last few decades has contributed to more working families struggling to get by. When workers have a seat at the table, they are better able to bargain for their fair share of the value they helped create; and that leads to greater economic security and economic mobility for everyone.
“As our economy continues to recover and we work to create good jobs, we need to ensure workers can lift their voices to raise wages, reduce inequality and help more people climb ladders of opportunity,” he concluded.
“Make no mistake, the job of rebuilding workers’ bargaining power and raising wages for the 99 percent has a long way to go,” said Trumka. “Collective action among working people remains the strongest, best force for economic justice in America. We’re building a stronger, more innovative movement to give voice to the values that built this country. From Walmart workers to fast food workers to homecare workers, the rising up of workers’ voices against inequality – both inside and outside of traditional structures – is the story of 2013.”
Recapping union membership landscape during 2013, the AFL-CIO noted: