Private Sector Unions: An endangered species?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report released this week, the number of people employed in the US decreased slightly in 2010 over 2009. At the same time, the number of workers covered by a union agreement declined markedly. According to the BLS Current Population Survey, the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union–was 11.9% in 2010, down from 12.3% a year earlier.

In Massachusetts, overall employment increased by a paltry 2000 jobs last year. At the same time, employees protected by union-type contracts declined by 70,000 jobs.

In Rhode Island, total employees grew in 2010 by 12,000 jobs or almost 3%. Employees protected by union-type contracts, on the other hand, shrank by 4000 jobs.

Were it not for public sector employees, the disparity would have been far greater. More than one third of public employees are unionized or covered by a union contract.

The BLS reports that the union membership rate in 2010 for American public sector workers (36.2%) was substantially higher than the rate for private sector workers (6.9%). Workers in education, training, and library occupations had the highest unionization rate at 37.1%. The loss of construction jobs was identified as one reason for the decline in private union jobs.

Union membership has shrunk, with few exceptions, for more than thirty years. Global competition and new technology have demanded a flexible workforce with the ability to acquire new skills rapidly. As unions continue to fight for their existence, staffing and outsourcing companies have been diversifying into all sectors of the economy. This, too, is a trend that has grown since World War II.

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