HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Union membership dropped last year to the lowest level in almost two decades as manufacturing companies hemorrhaged traditional union jobs faster than organizers could build new membership in other areas.
Some 13.2 percent of America's work force belonged to unions in 2002, down from 13.4 percent in 2001, the Labor Department reported Tuesday.
"Weaker union membership numbers are grim news for the entire nation," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. He said unions increase productivity, economic stability and workers' economic status.
The rate of union membership has dropped steadily since the data first was recorded in 1983, when 20.1 percent of the work force belonged to a union. In fact, the annual rate has never increased in the 19 years since.
Labor Department economists used new methods in compiling this year's data, and adjusted the 2001 statistics according to the revised system to show the real 0.2 percent drop. Previous years were not reassessed.
Union leaders in Florida this week for the AFL-CIO's winter executive council meeting countered with a new labor-financed poll that found half of respondents saying they would join a union if given the chance.
Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO affiliate with 1.5 million workers, suggested that in an era of corporate scandals workers "see unions as a positive voice against corporate greed."
Transportation had the highest rate of unionized workers in the private sector, at almost 24 percent. But that industry along with hotels and tourism have been heavily battered since the 2001 terrorist attacks, accounting for some of the union decline, Sweeney said.
The nation's factories have lost 1.9 million jobs in the last two years. The AFL-CIO's industrial unions say the job losses are reaching crisis levels, and have joined forces to increase their political and lobbying power.
The labor movement sees potential for growth in some of the AFL-CIO's largest affiliate unions -- SEIU, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees.
SEIU is having success in California by organizing home health care workers, and janitors across the country. AFSCME is organizing government workers at all levels across the country, including Los Angeles County psychiatric social workers.
HERE is focusing on immigrant workers.
"The big challenge is whether these labor leaders can think outside the box to figure out a way to pull in people," said Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer and author of the book, "Which Side are You On? Trying to be for Labor When it's Flat on its Back."
He has proposed that unions offer affiliate memberships. While not full-fledged members, these affiliates would get all union benefits except for collective bargaining or grievance protections.
The American Federation of Teachers has been offering associate memberships for about two decades, while other unions are just now exploring the idea.
AFT's associate members receive publications, can attend meetings, participate in lobbying and other activities and are eligible for benefits such as insurance and the union's credit card program. AFT's membership grew by almost 54,000 last year to 1.28 million members, including the associate members.
"It's a way to hold something out to people who don't have collective bargaining yet and don't belong to a union yet, but want some of the benefits," said AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz.
Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and other union leaders are proposing a new, nonprofit group to fight employer interference in organizing and bargaining, and to break down barriers to union membership through litigation. The National Rights at Work Committee would have an annual budget of $3 million to $5 million.
Unions also are expanding beyond their conventional industries to add new members. The United Auto Workers has organized casino employees, university graduate teaching assistants and hospital workers. AFT has organized psychologists and dental hygienists.