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Unions’ Numbers and Power Wane

In spite of eight years of strenuous efforts by labor unions and their allies in federal, state and even local governments, unions’ overall membership continues to erode while they fight furiously to expand their presence in the logistics industry.

Only 10.7% of the workforce in the United States belongs to unions, dropping by about 236,700, or 0.4%, in 2016, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. That’s down from 11.1% in 2015.

The number of workers covered by labor contracts also dropped to a new low of 12% in 2016, decreasing by 140,000. When you separate out public from private sector union membership the numbers are even grimmer.

Government workers have a union membership rate that is more than five times that of private sector workers – 34.4% of public sector workers belong to a union, while only 6.4% of private sector workers are represented by a union.

In addition, more than half of the 14.6 million current union members live in just seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio. However, these states represent only a third of the nation’s salary employment.

The overall retreat of private sector unions has been masked somewhat for those in the logistics industry because of their outsized presence in the ports and trucking industry and high-profile efforts to unionize drayage drivers and warehouse workers.

Nationally unions have played a larger-than-life role in funding the Democratic Party and supplying organizing help for such high-profile efforts as the “Occupy” movement of a few years back.

But one of the biggest players in that arena, the Service Employees International Union, has announced a 30% budget cut and the AFL-CIO is slashing staff. Even the once-mighty Teamsters are enmeshed in a disastrous multi-employer pension fund shortfall that will require substantial benefit reductions for hundreds of thousands of members.

The Right-to-Work Revolution

On Feb. 1 a national right-to-work bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that would allow employees to opt out of paying union dues throughout the U.S.

This could seriously weaken unions nationwide, but even if it does not come to pass the movement to enact right-to-work laws is sweeping across individual states.

The most recent to pass one was Missouri, making it the 28th state to adopt a right-to-work law. Next up could be New Hampshire, and unions are devoting significant resources and pulling out all the stops to prevent the Granite State from being the first Northeastern state to enact such a law.

State right-to-work laws appear to have had a real impact on union membership. Government figures show that of the 27 states with union membership below the national average in 2016, almost all of them were right-to-work states.

In addition, unions now have to worry about counties and metropolitan areas adopting right-to-work laws in states that don’t have such a law.

In a recent court challenge to right-to-work statute in Kentucky’s Hardin County, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the law’s legality in the face of opposition mounted by unions and allied special interest groups. Even the Obama Era National Labor Relations Board weighed in with a friend-of-the-court brief that registered its support for the union challenge to the county law.

Although the case is expected to be eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, as of now in the states covered by the 6th Circuit’s jurisdiction – Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan – local governments can legally adopt their own right-to-work legislation.

For the past eight years the Obama-appointed NLRB has done everything it can to put its thumb on the scale in favor of the unions. However, recent reports show that the policy changes adopted by the board have actually turned out to be something of a mixed bag for the unions.

For example, unions have enjoyed some success with organizing micro-unions – collective bargaining units that represent only a small portion of all employees at a single workplace location. But in national terms those gains also have been “micro” in terms of their contribution to building up the overall union membership base.

While some of the NLRB changes help, unions have made little use of others that were highly touted by union advocates when they were adopted, including the one allowing unions to gather electronic signatures on petitions to hold representation elections.

None of this means the logistics industry has less to worry about. Like a cornered animal, the wounded unions are more dangerous the more desperate their fate. They have redoubled efforts to organize in areas where they see growth potential, such as their campaigns aimed at organizing delivery drivers and independent contractor port drayage drivers.

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