Declining union membership causes concern locally

Kris Spenk, a maintenance worker for the Algonquin Parks & Forestry Division, cuts down tree limbs in the neighborhoods of Algonquin on Thursday.
Kris Spenk, a maintenance worker for the Algonquin Parks & Forestry Division, cuts down tree limbs in the neighborhoods of Algonquin on Thursday.

Labor unions throughout McHenry County are increasingly concerned that new laws aimed at stripping union power, combined with a growing cultural hostility toward organized labor, are to blame for declining union membership rates nationwide.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that union membership in both public and private sectors dropped by 400,000 in 2012, to 14.3 million, despite overall employment increasing by 2.4 million.

The percentage of union workers fell to 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, making the percentage the lowest ever since 1983, when the Labor Bureau started tracking annual union membership numbers.

The precipitous drop in organized labor has damaging effects on a U.S. economy driven by consumption that has more workers earning lower wages than ever before, said Ed Maher, spokesman for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.

“With the decline of organized labor, median wages drop as well,” Maher said. “Everybody should recognize that is a bad thing. ... It’s more people struggling to get by. It’s bad for the economy.”

Full-time union workers on average make nearly $200 more a week than non-union members, whose weekly earnings average $742, the Labor Bureau report found. In the construction industry, union workers made $1,086 a week last year versus $722 for non-union workers.

A world without organized labor would see the loss of competitive wages and a sharp decline in living wages, said Maher, whose Local 150 union predominately represents private construction contractors in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.

Local 150 also represents local public works employees, including municipalities like Algonquin and the county’s Division of Transportation. Contractors from Plote Construction Inc., a prominent developer in McHenry County, also are represented by Local 150.

Construction was one of the highest unionized private-sector industries at 13.2 percent, following transportation and utilities at 20.6 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. But overall, private sector unions are vanishing.

Only 6.6 percent of private sector workers belonged to unions compared to 35.9 percent of public sector workers.

The 23,000-member Local 150 hasn’t seen a loss in membership. But Maher called the Labor Bureau’s findings “disheartening,” since many from the general public greeted the results with praise.

Likewise, Local Education Association of District 300 President Kolleen Hanetho, who orchestrated a one-day teacher strike in December at Carpentersville District 300, said society in general has forgotten the value of unions that instituted 40-hour work weeks and ended child labor.

“Unions have became a bad word,” Hanetho said. “People have forgotten what they brought us. Saturdays and Sundays came from unions. I think people have thought about not needing unions anymore and that’s exactly what management wants us to think.”

Hanetho has seen LEAD’s membership increase by 20 following the strike at District 300. More members decided to get full benefits, like contract voting rights and union legal protections, after seeing LEAD’s commitment toward a new contract, Hanetho said.

Teachers, police and firefighters belong to one of the most heavy unionized industries in the country. Local government workers had a 41.7 percent unionization last year, down from 43.2 percent in 2011, as many public sector workers lost their jobs.

Similar drops in union membership occurred in states like Wisconsin, which passed a 2011 law that stripped many collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. Indiana also saw a decline last year, when the state passed a right-to-work law that prompted many workers to stop paying union dues.

Michigan, which sported the highest unionization rate in the Midwest, became the 24th state to pass right-to-work legislation in early December. The laws prohibit requiring employees to pay union dues.

Leaders from the Service Employees International Union Local 73 are concerned that Illinois, a longtime labor stronghold, may try to follow its Midwestern neighbors in enacting laws meant to strip union power.

Illinois’ unionization rate was 14.6 percent last year. New York had the highest at 23.2 percent. North Carolina had the lowest rate at 2.9 percent.

Adam Rosen, spokesperson for SEIU Local 73, which represents employees from McHenry County’s coroner and animal control departments, said organized labor in general needs to be proactive in combating the growing anti-union sentiment, from both lawmakers and the public.

“We need to show more people how unions keep this state running,” Rosen said. “We hope that the trend will reverse and the public sentiment will change and more workers will be unionized.”

By the numbers

Union membership nationwide:

• 2012: 14.3 million (11.3 percent)

• 2011: 14.7 million (11.8 percent)

• 1983: 17.7 million (17.7 percent)

High unionized states (2012):

1. New York: 23.2 percent

2. Alaska: 22.4 percent

3. Hawaii: 21.6 percent

4. Washington: 18.5 percent

5. Rhode Island: 17.8 percent


11. Illinois: 14.6 percent

Union membership in Midwestern states (2012 vs. 2011):

Michigan (16.6 percent vs. 17.5 percent)

Illinois (14.6 percent vs. 16.2 percent)

Wisconsin (11.2 percent vs. 13.3 percent)

Iowa (10.4 percent vs. 11.2 percent)

Indiana (9.1 percent vs. 11.3 percent)

Missouri (8.9 percent vs. 10.9 percent)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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