San Francisco Chronicle
U.S. labor unions making gains - slowly
George Raine, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Pushed by membership gains here in California, the percentage of U.S. union workers is increasing for the first time since 1979, a report from the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment shows.
But it's not exactly a rapid advance. The rate of union membership rose only one-tenth of a percentage point from 2006 to 2007. Before that, the last time U.S. unionization rates increased was in 1979, the UCLA report noted. From 2007 to 2008, union membership nationwide rose half a percentage point, to 12.6 percent of all U.S. civilian workers, according to the report, which came out today.
"This is good news for organized labor," said Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology who is the lead author of the report and outgoing director of the UCLA labor institute. "It shows that despite an extremely hostile environment, unions can grow."
Beginning this Labor Day weekend, Americans will be getting an earful not only about a gain in union numbers, albeit small, but also about union organizing and labor-friendly legislation in Congress that Sen. Barack Obama supports and co-sponsored and with which Sen. John McCain couldn't disagree more. It's one of the great divides in the presidential campaign.
It is called the Employee Free Choice Act, the unions' top legislative priority. It would result in sweeping changes in the National Labor Relations Act by making labor organizing substantially easier. Unions would be permitted to form if a majority of workers signs authorization cards designating the union as the bargaining representative. That means of organizing is available now, but employers almost always insist that employees - even if a majority signs cards - choose whether they want union representation in a secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The legislation would keep the election as an option, but would permit unions to sidestep the process, and in reality, employers say, unions will do just that.
Difference of opinion
"The difference is that under this legislation the workers, not the employers, choose how workers vote for their union," said Lane Windham, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO.
"The concern that employers have is that these authorization cards could be a very poor indicator of employees' true feelings," as workers may be coerced into favoring union representation, said John Skonberg, a San Francisco lawyer who represents employers at the Littler Mendelson law firm.
"Employers feel they should have the ability to talk to employees and employees should have the ability to hear both sides and then go into a booth and vote in private," Skonberg said.
"The much more dangerous part of this statute is the second part," said Skonberg, referring to language that requires a first contract be referred to a mediator if agreement can't be reached after 90 days of negotiations, and then to an arbitrator if mediation fails.
"It's a disfavored concept because neither is usually wild about giving up the ability to get what they want," Skonberg said. Proponents of the legislation say the status quo is a stacked deck.
Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said, "What is essential for union growth and rebirth is labor law reform. We have a situation now that makes it exceedingly difficult for workers to organize and bargain collectively if they face any strong employer opposition."
UCLA's Milkman added, "This would give unions a fair chance if workers want to belong to a union. It would help level what has become a very lopsided playing field."
The House passed the 2007 version of the act, but it did not survive a Republican filibuster and President Bush said he would veto it if it reached his desk. It is to be reintroduced in the new Congress.
Organized labor's numbers have fallen dramatically from the 1950s. The UCLA report says that only 7.7 percent of private sector jobs in the United States are held by union-represented workers, while a study also released today by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and
Education puts it at 8.6 percent. But the private sector numbers are slightly higher in California, at 10 percent or more, the two labor centers agree. With increasing numbers of workers represented by unions in health and human services and government sectors, California is helping to push up the needle on U.S. unionization, said Jacobs of UC Berkeley.
The UCLA report said that this year, 57.1 percent of jobs in the public sector in California are
held by union members, and the figure is 37.2 percent nationwide.
California has more than 2.6 million union-represented workers. The Los Angeles metro area, which includes Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, helped drive California's union growth. Nearly half of California's union workers - 1.2 million workers - live in the Los Angeles area, according to the UCLA study, released annually on the Labor Day weekend.
In San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Clara, Marin, San Mateo, Sonoma, Napa, Contra Costa, Solano and Santa Cruz counties, there were 576,500 union members in 2007, compared with 598,800 in the first half of 2008, according to the report prepared by Milkman and UCLA sociology graduate student Bongoh Kye.
The report shows that through June, the number of U.S. workers represented by unions increased by 583,300 over the 2007 average. Much of the growth was generated in California, which UCLA noted accounts for 16 percent of all the nation's union members, more than any other state. California's unionization rate in 2008 is 17.8 percent, up from 16.7 percent in 2007 and 15.7 percent in 2006.
Historically, the Bay Area was the most highly unionized part of the state, the report noted, while Los Angeles lagged far behind. In recent years, the gap has nearly closed. The union density in the Bay Area is 17.7 percent, including both private and public sectors. In Los Angeles, both private and public sector union jobs account for 17 percent. The percentage in Sacramento, where there are many state government jobs, is 23 percent. It's 13.4 percent in San Diego, 15.9 percent in Fresno and 17.8 percent statewide.
Milkman said one reason California's numbers have been relatively stable is that the state was not as affected by the collapse of the industrial union structure as were other states. "That was always a much smaller part of the scene on the West Coast and has insulated California from much of the national decline," she said. "The other factor is the very strong public sector here - that's a lot of what is driving this."
As important for organized labor, she said, is the steady increase in membership in Service Employees International Union, particularly in health care. "That's the growth machine of organized labor these days," Milkman said. The 2 million-member SEIU is the fastest-growing union in North America, adding 114,158 members in 2007.
Union workers earn more
The UCLA study noted that the average hourly earnings of U.S. union workers are about $2.50 higher than those for nonunion workers. Union members are also far more likely to have benefits like retirement plans, medical insurance and paid leave than nonunion workers, the study said.
It said that in 2007, 90 percent of union members had access to retirement benefits, compared with 61 percent of nonunion workers; 91 percent of union members had access to medical coverage, compared with 70 percent of nonunion workers, and 57 percent of union members had employer-provided paid-leave benefits, compared with 38 percent of nonunion workers.