WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) - Labor leaders say workers are fed up amid stagnant wages, worries about health insurance coverage and jobs lost overseas.
But can middle-class worries about well-being help reverse the decades-long trend of declining union membership?
"Workers of all backgrounds from all [across] the country are choosing to unite in unions - as long as they have the opportunity and the freedom to form unions without interference from their employers," said Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern, in an e-mail interview.
Of course, SEIU is one of the nation's fastest-growing unions, with more than 1.9 million members. It has scored notable successes in recent years organizing hospital workers, janitors, security guards and other service-industry workers.
But while SEIU and other service- and government-employee unions have made gains, the ongoing decline in the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector has served to keep the number of union jobs sliding, said labor expert David Cornfield, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University.
'Workers of all backgrounds from all [across] the country are choosing to unite in unions - as long as they have the opportunity and the freedom to form unions without interference from their employers.'
— Andrew Stern, Service Employees International Union
Union membership stood at 12% in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics - down from 12.5% a year earlier. The rate has declined steadily from 20.1% in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available, the BLS said. And when it comes to union membership, workers in the public sector outnumber private-sector employees five-to-one.
A report by Hofstra University's Center for the Study of Labor and Democracy released in August highlighted the difficulties unions have faced merely treading water amid a growing workforce.
It found that the number of New York City residents in labor unions rose by 8.3% between 1997-99 and 2004-2006, with around 26.4% of New York wage and salary workers belonging to a union. On Long Island, union membership grew by only 0.7%, with 23.5% of all employees in a union.
Overall, the New York-Northern New Jersey metropolitan area has the highest union density rate - 23.3% -- of any major metro area - and stands well above the nationwide rate of 12%.
But membership gains haven't fully kept up with overall employment growth, resulting in a slight drop in the union density rate since the late 1990s, the report's authors found.
"These new findings show a surprising resilience in many New York unions that have succeeded recently in growing their membership just enough to avoid the national trend of declining unionization rates," said Hofstra economics professor Gregory DeFreitas, who serves as director of the Center for the Study of Labor and Democracy. "But, even in the country's most highly unionized metro area, unions' organizing efforts and wage gains have not been enough so far to close the enormous gap between the average worker's rising productivity and stagnating real wages."
And while union backers point to data that show workers are worried about the future, particularly health-care, analysts say data shows workers are relatively happy overall.
"I don't see a lot of evidence that there is increasing concern about one's own job. Nor do I see increasing concern about income inequality," said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who compiled data from numerous polls for AEI's annual study on the American worker attitudes last month.
That said, surveys also showed that around half of workers know someone who was laid off or lost a job in the past year, and a significant number in recent months say they know someone who has had trouble paying a mortgage, Bowman said.
"I think only a small number of Americans think it's likely they could lose a job in the next year. But I think they think 'there but for the grace of God go I,'" Bowman said.
Bowman said it's impossible to draw a direct correlation between worker satisfaction and labor union membership.
And union opponents argue that past downswings in the economy haven't provided a lasting boost union membership rolls.
"You can go back to 1991 or 2001 - the last two recessions [where] you didn't see union membership picking up during those times of economic uncertainty," said James Sherk, a fellow at the Heritage Institute, a conservative think tank. "Historically, we haven't seen that when you have uncertainty and concern on the part of workers that it's led to this huge upswing in union membership."
Union leaders say organizing efforts will get a big boost if Congress passes legislation that would allow workers to form a union when a majority of employees sign cards authorizing union representation. The union-backed Employee Free Choice Act would do just that. It passed the House earlier this year, but stalled in the Senate amid Republican opposition.
The bill, which would face a certain veto were it ever to make it to President Bush's desk, triggered a furious lobbying battle on Capitol Hill. Business groups and conservatives support current law requiring employers to hold secret-ballot elections on union representation if 30% of workers sign cards calling for a poll.
They argue that the "card-check" provisions sought by labor unions would allow organizers to intimidate workers into signing authorization cards.
"The union organizer can come back as many times as he wants until the worker signs on - it tends to be a lot easier for them to organize workers and they succeed in something like 80% to 85% of the card-check campaigns they run," said Heritage's Sherk.
Union backers say current law gives employers virtually a free pass to fire workers seeking to drum up support for unions and to use numerous hardball tactics to intimidate employees before secret-ballot elections.
The Employee Free Choice Act "will provide strong, enforceable protections for workers and impose tough penalties for employers," Stern said. "The legislation is needed to ensure that workers who choose to unite on the job are able to do so without fear of retribution or harassment from their employers."
William L. Watts is a reporter for MarketWatch.
[PS, I support the EFCA, and agree with the assertion that the status quo makes union-busting easier - no wonder the American Enterprise Institute likes it.]