Labor-state in union-dues crisis

Union membership in Massachusetts last year dropped to its lowest level in almost two decades as one of the country's most steadfast collective-bargaining states continues to replace old-line jobs in manufacturing with salaried occupations in technology and professional services.

The number of workers in the Commonwealth who belonged to a union declined last year by 35,000 to hit a 19-year-low of 379,000, according to data released yesterday by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, union membership nationwide was relatively flat, rising by 311,000 workers to nearly 15.7 million.

The percentage of Massachusetts workers who are in unions - a more important measure because it adjusts for a state's job losses or gains - fell to 13.2 percent of the state's workers, down from 14.5 percent in 2006.

Last year's numbers for the state are the lowest since the government began collecting union membership data in 1989, but Massachusetts is still ahead of more than three-quarters of the states. Nationwide, union members made up 12.1 percent of employed wage and salary workers, essentially unchanged from the prior year's 12 percent.

"The Northeast has traditionally been a stronghold for union membership," said Walter Marshall, a regional economist at the labor statistics agency. "It could be part of the cultural business climate, and it could be a combination of the industries and occupations."

Labor economists say Massachusetts' decline is due in part to the larger disappearance of manufacturing jobs and slower gain in construction jobs. Other government data show manufacturing accounted for 9 percent of the state's jobs last year, compared to 10.1 percent of the country's jobs during the same period; construction amounted to 4.2 percent of the state's jobs last year, compared to 5.5 percent nationwide. Still, this state's situation isn't drastically different from those of others. Union membership has been eroding nationwide since 1990 as service jobs - in finance, information technology, and other knowledge-based industries that usually are not unionized - have proliferated.

The state's concentration of teaching and healthcare jobs, however, helped offset a larger decline in union membership last year and may continue to do so in the next few years. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest union in the state, continued its four-year growth streak by gaining 3,349 members last year to a total of 107,510 members in June. "Our membership is still going up at this point," said the union's president, Anne Wass.

And 22,000 of the state's home-care workers voted in November to join the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which now has 34,000 members. More sign-ups may soon stream in from Boston's major teaching hospitals, where organizing efforts have been stirring for the past year. "There's a major movement afoot with Boston hospital workers, of which about 60,000 are nonunion right now, to join 1199 SEIU," said Jeff Hall, spokesman for 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

Julie Pinkham, executive director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said efforts to unionize healthcare workers are probably increasing because they hold longer-term payoffs.

"It's a more stable industry to focus your organizing efforts on," Pinkham said. "Whereas you see manufacturing jobs moving out of the country, it's a lot harder to move healthcare jobs out of the country."


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