Union membership decline and its impact on Obama's agenda

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Organized labor can take as much credit for the major electoral victory in November as any single group. Even the Republicans have praised the efficiency and effectiveness that union households played in getting loyal voters to register, to the polls and volunteering throughout the campaign. However, a new report this week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows union membership continues to decline in the United States.

Organized labor unions lost over 400,000 members in 2012 (about 2.8 percent) and over 50 percent were in the important public sector. Union membership has fallen to slightly over 11 percent representing the lowest level since the 1930s. Key reasons are attributed to the battles lost in fighting Republican governors in Wisconsin and Indiana and to the members of union households in Michigan who refused to support pro-union changes to the State constitution.

Added to the complexity of finding unity within the several bases is the fact that members of organized labor are severely split on both immigration and gun control issues. Most union leaders are opposed to more liberal immigration policies fearing the increase in supply will further damage wage levels which have not really improved much since WWII. On the other hand, union leaders in the private sector where large numbers of jobs are remaining vacant due to the lack of skilled workers are more positive on measures to allow foreigners with special skills to stay after graduation from U.S. schools or emigrate from abroad.

Union members in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, even Illinois are active sportsmen or have relatives or neighbors who like to hunt. How much solid support will they have for gun controls beyond more detailed investigations of prospective gun buyers?

It should also be remembered that the Hispanic communities, strong advocates for relaxed immigration rules, are strongly opposed to the president’s positions on homosexuality and especially gay marriage. These Hispanic communities are recognized for having personal ambition and building their own companies. How much support will they continue to have for the president’s goals when the true costs of healthcare or the regulations and costs of climate change controls become major issues? Besides, these communities and those among the Asian- and African-American populations are still wondering whatever happened to all the talk about jobs.

President Obama has laid out his plans with strong words. If experience is of value he cannot expect much cooperation from the opposition party. Republicans, if wise, will attempt to find allies among the dissidents described above and create legislative proposals which speak to their goals.

James is executive director of the Center for Global Governance, Reporting and Regulation at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York City with a long career in management consulting in the labor relations area. James is also program director of Pace University’s Certified Compliance and Regulatory Professional certificate program. He is the author of the first texts in English on labor and industrial law and practice in key countries of Europe.