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Poll says Americans split on value of labor unions

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, 12:30 p.m.

One-third of Americans dismiss unions as “a thing of the past” while nearly as many still value the importance of organized labor, a poll shows.

The remaining one-third either have no opinion or say they're unsure how to view unions in today's economy, according to results Friday from the Robert Morris University Polling Institute, which Trib Total Media sponsors.

Indeed, union membership has plummeted from its peak in the mid-1950s, when manufacturing was booming and 35 percent of the workforce carried a union card. Today about 11 percent of Americans are union members.

“I think we might have hit the low in union membership,” said Karl Petrick, economics professor at Western New England University, who was not associated with the poll. “I'm cautiously optimistic that it will go up because of the push into some new areas such as part-time service, fast food and also with the possible resurgence of some of the unions in the construction industry.”

Rather than viewing unions as fading entities, organizers say unionism has shifted to reflect the service-based industries dominating the modern economy.

“Unions are not dying out,” said Maria Somma, assistant director of organizing for United Steelworkers, a Pittsburgh-based umbrella union with 850,000 members in the United States and abroad, including 65,000 in Pennsylvania. “While industries where union members have traditionally worked are being closed down or shipped overseas, workers in other professions and sectors are looking to unions to have the same protections.”

In some fields, such as fast-food, health care and higher education, unions are seeing growth in membership, Service Employees International Union Healthcare PA President Neal Bisno said.

“What we've seen in Pittsburgh and across the country over the last several years is really an almost historic upsurge of workers organizing,” Bisno said.

Earlier this year, adjunct faculty at Point Park University formed a union chapter by joining with the United Steelworkers. In the last six months, the American Council of State, Local and Municipal Employees organized 92,000 new members nationwide, AFSCME Council 13 Executive Director Dave Fillman said.

Last week in Minnesota, 25,000 health care workers joined SEIU, and eight hospitals in eastern and central Pennsylvania unionized over the past nine months, according to Bisno.

“Workers need a voice at the workplace,” said Louis Berry, 55, a trash collector who is helping to organize workers at UPMC Montefiore in Oakland. “There's always a better voice when you have a united workforce.”

Nathan Benefield, policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, said that anti-union sentiments persist largely because of concerns about unions getting too political.

“They're very political and very partisan in some of their actions, and that's why a lot of people don't think that they're really benefitting workers,” Benefield said.

Nationally, about 35 percent of government workers are in a union, compared to fewer than 7 percent in the private sector, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2013, nearly 13 percent of workers in Pennsylvania were in unions — about 701,000 employees — slightly higher than the national average.

Despite the split views on unions, 64 percent of Americans surveyed said they support right-to-work laws, which in some states prevent employees from being forced to join unions and pay dues as a condition of employment.

The online poll surveyed 1,001 Americans representing roughly the proportional population of all states between Aug. 18 and 22. Of those surveyed, 8.9 percent were union members and 10.6 percent had a family member in a union. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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