AFL-CIO admits declining membership a major problem
The AFL-CIO convention had barely begun before the labor group's leader in Pennsylvania offered a sobering thought that its challenges went beyond raising the minimum wage.
“If we don't reverse the trend in our numbers, we're going to be in dire straits indeed,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
The statewide labor organization kicked off its biennial convention in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, an event that 800 people are expected to attend as the organization sets the priorities for the next two years.
Bloomingdale's comment was a small, even quiet point made amid spirited calls to fight the political and corporate powers that labor leaders say threaten worker rights.
Still, it was a reminder that unions have another challenge beyond fighting anti-union legislation and arguing for higher wages. Indeed, they must fight for their own survival.
Union membership has declined across the United States since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, more than a fifth of the nation's workers were unionized. By last year, the rate had fallen to 11.3 percent.
Organized labor has a slightly stronger presence in Pennsylvania but it has fallen steadily. Last year, 12.7 percent of working Pennsylvanians were union members, down from 13.5 percent in 2012 and 20 percent in 1989.
Labor leaders have blamed the losses on anti-union legislation crafted during the Reagan administration and, more recently, so-called “right-to-work” laws that forbid unions and employers to enter into agreements that would require workers to join a union in order to keep a job.
But reasons for the membership declines are more complicated. Pennsylvania is not among the two dozen states that have adopted right-to-work laws. Though they have been proposed in Pennsylvania, they have failed to gain traction.
Industries that have been traditional strongholds of union labor, such as manufacturing, have been in a long period of decline, even more so during the recession. Pennsylvania's manufacturers lost nearly 95,000 jobs, a 14.5 percent decline, between December 2007 and January 2014. Meanwhile, sectors such as professional and business services, education and health care have grown, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.
Anti-union laws have damaged organized labor, but unions need to do more than focus on the political fight, said Ed Grystar of Oakmont. Rather, there needs to be grassroots efforts to educate and attract members, he said.
“Obviously, labor is in a state of crisis,” Grystar said. “We have an opportunity to revitalize the labor movement, but it has to be done from the bottom up.”
Women offer another opportunity, said Kim George, 46, of Ebensburg.
George was passing out fliers for the Coalition of Labor Union Women, a group that advocates for women within organized labor.
“I think women are vital,” she said. “Women like to communicate, and we represent a large part of the workforce.”
Young people are key, said Beth Ann Mikus of Heidelberg, a member of SEIU Local 668. Workers aged 16 to 24 represented just 4 percent of all union members in 2013 and those 25-34 years old were less than 10 percent, according to the Labor Bureau.
“They are the future,” Mikus said. “They are part of working America.”
Still, Mikus and union organizers found reason for hope. There have been strong turnouts at demonstrations to raise the national minimum wage, they said, as well as one in downtown Pittsburgh last month seeking higher pay for UPMC employees.
Local unions have the support of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who has called on the health care giant to raise wages, increase access to its hospitals and pay its “fair share” to Pittsburgh along with other tax-exempt nonprofits.
UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said the organization pays “more than our fair share in taxes” and pays workers a good wage. Although UPMC has discouraged its workers from unionizing, he said it has not prevented them from doing so.
“It's not our choice,” Wood said. “The workers themselves have chosen not to organize. They don't see the value of union representation.”
Peduto said unions play an important role in the city. He spoke at the convention about Pittsburgh's history of organized labor and support of the middle class. The city's industrial economy, once a source of so many union jobs, had evolved into an intellectual workforce of technology and health care.
“We have this opportunity in Pittsburgh to be able to look back and see what it was that was fought for and to look forward to make sure that nothing is lost in the building of a new economy,” Peduto said. “Pittsburgh went from that dusty little frontier town to a world global leader, through a renaissance and entering a new phase. ... Whatever this next economy may be, it has that same opportunity that the last economy had to bring everyone along for the ride.”
Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.