TERRE HAUTE —
As a percentage of the workforce, Hoosier labor union membership dropped to its lowest recorded level in 2012, according to figures released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Just 9.1 percent of Hoosier workers were members of unions last year, a drop of more than 2 percent from the year before, according to the BLS. This marks the first time since the government started tracking individual state data in 1989 that Indiana’s union workforce has fallen below 10 percent.
For Indiana this continues a steep, decades-long decline in the unionized workforce, a decline that has outpaced even the nationwide downward trend during the same period.
Before about 2001, Indiana’s unionized workforce was well above the national level, according to the BLS.
However, beginning about five years ago, the percentage of union workers in the state fell below the national percentage, where it has remained, the data show.
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who took office in 2005, likely helped accelerate the trend. On his first day in office he ended collective bargaining for state workers and, at the end of his second term, he signed Indiana’s new right-to-work law, which makes it illegal for a worker to be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment, a measure unions fiercely fought.
Through all this, unions in the Terre Haute area are managing to hold their own, but are definitely awaiting a shift in the political winds, said Bill Treash, president of the Wabash Valley Central Labor Council,
“We’re maintaining our numbers,” Treash told the Tribune-Star on Friday. “We may have lost a few, but not much.”
Treash said the biggest drop in union membership has been felt in the public sector. First, there was the drop in state government employee union membership after the 2005 executive order from Gov. Daniels eliminating collective bargaining for state workers. Now, postal employees are struggling to keep their jobs, he said.
“We’re just trying to survive until we get some different leadership” in Indianapolis, Treash said.
Meanwhile, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 725, which is based in Terre Haute but covers several surrounding counties, has managed to keep its membership numbers steady despite the slow economy of the past several years and other challenges, said Paul Rupska, president of the local and assistant business agent. That’s thanks in large part to the construction of the Edwardsport Power Station in Knox County, he said.
“Edwardsport was a really good thing for our area,” he said. There are currently 657 members in the local and about 35 new members – a record high – are about to graduate from the union’s apprenticeship program, Rupska said. To the extent the local is losing members, it is due to age – many baby boomers are retiring and many younger workers are intimidated by the union’s demanding standards, he said.
As for Indiana’s new right-to-work legislation, it may be too soon to realize its full impact, said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. The law only affects new labor contracts, so many contracts that existed before the law was passed are still in effect, he said.
Still, historically, in states where right-to-work laws have passed, union membership is typically “diluted,” Bruno said.
There is nothing new about the most recent decline in Indiana’s union workforce. The Hoosier state has followed a national trend for decades. In 1983, 20 percent of the national workforce was unionized while 22 percent of Hoosier workers were. Today, the national figure is just 11.3 percent while the state is closer to 9 percent, according to the BLS.
It may be far too soon to forecast the death of organized labor, however. If economic and social inequality continues to expand in the U.S., union membership could grow, Bruno said. “Typically, when that happens, you create conditions where people are willing to look for collective solutions,” he said.
It’s also possible new, pro-labor, legislation could come out of Washington D.C., Bruno said. That would help reverse what he calls highly unfavorable labor legislation now on the books.
Another possible life preserver for unions could be the sort of non-union, worker-centered public relations campaigns we saw around Black Friday last November. In those cases, non-union workers at companies such as Walmart launched well-publicized campaigns against working on the Thanksgiving holiday. That campaign was effective and signals a new, non-traditional approach to labor organization that could continue to grow, Bruno said.
“I think you’re going to see this really expand,” Bruno said. “These are marginal” gains for organized labor at this point, he said. “But, often times, change starts in these marginal kinds of ways.”
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or email@example.com