Local union membership declines

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Sunday, September 6, 2009
— While union membership in the United States last year rose by the largest amount in a quarter-century, membership in Janesville-based unions plummeted.

The biggest reason is job losses in the area’s manufacturing sector.

Between 2000 and 2008, membership in unions with Janesville addresses dropped by 54 percent, according to a Gazette analysis of U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Last year’s drop was 33 percent.

The freefall was fueled by significant losses in the city’s largest union: United Auto Workers Local 95, which draws most of its membership from the now closed General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.

In 2000, Local 95 reported that it had nearly 7,000 members. At the end of 2008, that number was down to 2,555, and it undoubtedly will fall further when 2009 numbers are tabulated later this year.

As an amalgamated union, Local 95 represents industries that range from manufacturing to health care to financial services. Still, Local 95 officials expect membership will continue to drop as GM sheds or transfers workers.

“The UAW has been a dominant force in the Janesville area for so many decades, but its presence is essentially gone,” said David Newby, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, a federation of 850 labor organizations in the state.

“It’s a major loss, but the real tragedy is the loss of jobs with good pay and benefits. It’s not because of anything these people did or didn’t do. What we’re seeing are the results of decades and decades of complacency by the automakers.”

Decade of decline

Tracking union membership at the local level is difficult, Newby and other union officials said. Workers often travel for their work, particularly in the case of trade union jobs, and unions tend to be over wide geographical regions.

In addition, the labor department’s numbers include retirees.

For it’s analysis, the Gazette focused on unions with Janesville addresses.

In addition to Local 95, labor department statistics indicate membership in Janesville-based building and construction trade unions fell 41 percent from 2000 to 2008.

Teamsters Local 579 went from 1,329 members in 2000 to zero in 2008, but that’s because Janesville-based Teamsters are now members of Local 695 in Madison. In 2007, the last year in which Local 579 reported members, its roll was 41 percent less than it was in 2000.

The local International Association of Machinists union opened the decade with 526 members and closed with 485. In 2006, membership spiked when Local 1197 in Beloit merged with the Janesville-based Local 1266.

Still, Newby said, the overall numbers reflect a decline that can be traced to 1983, when 20.1 percent of the U.S. work force belonged to a union.

“I don’t think the local union movement itself is lacking,” said Ivan Collins, president of the Rock County Central Labor Council, an affiliation of local AFL-CIO unions. “There are certainly things going on at the organizing level that aren’t that well publicized.

“But when you look at the membership numbers, there is a decline due to the loss of manufacturing and the state of the economy.”

Newby noted that Wisconsin shared in the national membership increase in 2008, when Wisconsin unions picked up 20,000 new members and grew from 14.3 percent of the state work force to 15.1 percent. Still, he said the numbers are down from the 1980s and ’90s.

“In Wisconsin, unions have primarily looked to organize two groups: industry and construction,” he said. “But the groups showing the growth in recent years have been in the public and service sectors.”

The public sector

While overall public sector representation has remained relatively flat in Janesville, its slice of the union pie has increased as private sector union membership declined.

Tom Larsen of Wisconsin Council 40 AFSCME, which represents a variety of county, municipal and school workers in Janesville in five units, said his union’s membership is down about 11 percent for the decade.

One local AFSCME unit lost nearly half of its members, primarily because of downsizing at the Rock County Health Care Center, while another picked up new members with jail expansions, Larsen said.

“Generally, it’s been pretty stable,” he said.

Stability characterizes the Janesville Education Association, which represents teachers in the Janesville School District. Largely tied to enrollment, JEA’s membership has ranged from 878 in 2000 to 846 last year.

Newby said membership and organizing changes in the union movement reflect changes in the U.S. economy.

“It’s no great surprise that with our losses in manufacturing, manufacturing members make up a smaller percentage of union membership,” he said. “The other reason for the decline is that the resistance to organize in the private sector is just so strong.”

Union battles

In Janesville, management at RathGibson in Janesville has resisted recent employee efforts to organize for representation by Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

An initial vote at RathGibson, a maker of stainless steel and alloy welded tubular products, was close but favored union representation. The voting was contested, and a second vote is in the offing.

Union workers at Woodman’s stores in Janesville, Beloit and Madison are locked in to what’s become a 20-month debate on whether Local 1473 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union will continue to represent them.

Newby said while it’s important for union organizers to look to the service sector, they can’t forget manufacturing and the trades.

“We still recognize that manufacturing and the trades are central to the economic health of any advanced country,” he said. “This country’s trade policy is critical, and unless we get that right, the manufacturing base will continue to deteriorate.

“As a country, when you don’t make anything, you’re in trouble.”

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and its predecessor policies have sucked manufacturing jobs out of the United States, Newby said.

“They just haven’t worked, and it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that our trade policy doesn’t have to be a race to the bottom,” he said. “We don’t have to be protectionist, but we need to set some ground rules that apply to all countries that will ultimately help the world economy, our environment and living standards all over the world.”

Collins said manufacturing will continue to be an important part of the local economy, and unions will not abandon their commitment to manufacturing or its workers.

“The face of manufacturing is changing,” he said. “I think we’re going to see smaller manufacturing companies, and if we can pick up a larger one, great.”

Last updated: 11:26 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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