Labor Leaders See Signs of Hope

Charleston Gazette - Last year, union membership for all wage and salary workers held steady at 11.3 percent. Labor leaders hope that's one sign that a decades-long decline in union membership may be slowing or stopping. Read

"The national labor movement is holding its own right now. We haven't seen significant dropoffs in membership over the last several years, like we did in the early part of this century," said Phil Smith, national spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.

"That is not to say there are not some significant challenges the labor movement as a whole has to confront and the UMWA specifically has to confront," Smith said.

Last year, 14.5 million wage and hourly workers were union members, according to an annual report published by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the first year the BLS gathered this data, 20.1 percent of all workers, or 11.7 million employees, were union members.

But the decline in union membership started before then. Unionization topped 30 percent for 19 consecutive years between 1943 and 1961.

The union numbers were buoyed by "public sector" workers, where 35.3 percent of all workers belonged to a union. In the private sector, union membership rate was only 6.7 percent.

Unions have played a major role in West Virginia history, raising wages and improving working conditions, especially in coal mining and industries including chemicals, steel and glass.

"While we spend considerable time discussing our state's business climate, we seldom talk about the state's climate for working people. This is highly unfortunate because you can't have a strong economy without a strong middle class," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. "Higher pay, better benefits and safe work places are strongly associated with union membership. And most important, labor unions force employers to treat employees with dignity and respect.


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