Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

State of the Unions: Membership Numbers Suggest Changes in Economy, Workplace Culture

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

State of the Unions: Membership Numbers Suggest Changes in Economy, Workplace Culture

Article excerpt

OKLAHOMA CITY - The latest labor union numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest a possible shift in workplace culture as well as the economy, economist Russell Evans said.

For the last decade, the percentage of workers in unions nationwide has slowly dropped from 12.5 percent in 2004 to 11.1 percent last year, according to Bureau of Labor economist James B. Howard Jr. In 2013, the figure was 11.3 percent.

Ten years ago, Oklahoma's union representation was 6 percent. It increased and shrunk twice, and then came back to 6 percent in 2014. Last year, 7.5 percent of Oklahoma wage and salary workers were union members, a high for the decade.

But even as membership percentages have decreased nationwide, the total number of union members has remained steady. The most straightforward explanation for the difference between the trends is that as the labor market has grown with the population, unions have failed to attract new workers.

That theory fails to consider several other factors, such as realignments in the manufacturing sector, said Evans, who is director of the Economic Research and Policy Institute at Oklahoma City

University.

"Typically, manufacturing has the strongest number of unionized workers," he said. "A generation ago, about a third of our employment base was in manufacturing. If you think about the typical manufacturing process, there's roughly equal productivity across the factory floor, so you would expect roughly equal pay.

"What we've seen in the last in the 30 years or so is a decline in manufacturing employment as a share of the workforce, and that work has been moving to the south and east into right-to-work states," he said.

Right-to-work states refuse to require union membership.

Jimmy Curry, president of the Oklahoma chapter of the AFL-CIO, said that Oklahoma's unionized workers have followed the trends of more home construction and fewer manufacturing positions. He affirmed some of Evan's perspective about changes in the latter, and added that some jobs are leaving the country altogether.

"We also lost 100 jobs in Ponca City to an acquisition by Johnson Controls; they're shipping some of their work to Mexico," he said. …

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