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Do You Get The Feeling That Something ‘Good’ Is Happening Here? - Union Membership Creeps Upward In The South

Published Sunday, February 7, 2016
Do You Get The Feeling That Something ‘Good’ Is Happening Here? - Union Membership Creeps Upward In The South

Over the last year, the share of U.S. Workers belonging to Unions held steady at 11.1%, according to recently-released data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) - but the new BLS figures also show Unions made surprising gains in a region where Labor faces some of its biggest legal and political obstacles to organizing: the U.S. South.

In the 13 Southern States, the number of Workers belonging to Unions grew from 2.2 million in 2014, or 5.2% of the workforce, to 2.4 million by the end of 2015, or 5.5% of Southern Workers.

Eight Southern states gained Union Members, including four states that ranked in the Top 10 nationally for growth in Union Membership: West Virginia (which rose from 11.6%  to 12.4%, a 1.8 point increase), Mississippi (a 1.8 point increase), Florida and North Carolina (1.1 point increases).

North Carolina's rising Unionization Rate, which brings the state's total number of Union Members up to 123,000, or 3% of the workforce, lifted it out of its position last year as the country's least-Unionized state.

The bottom position now belongs to South Carolina, where the Union Membership rate stands at 2.1%.

In a statement, the North Carolina AFL-CIO argued that Labor's gains prove that Unions can make headway in the South, despite an array of barriers including Right-To-Work (for less) Laws and bans on bargaining by Public Sector Employees: The increase in Union Membership in a majority of southern states, including North Carolina, confirms what polls have shown time and again: most Workers support unions.  Unfortunately, with our weak Labor Laws and lax penalties for companies who violate Workers' Rights, too few Working People get the chance to join a Union, and as a result, we've seen Wages stagnate and inequality increase.

The BLS report brought into sharp relief the challenges that so-called Right-To-Work Laws pose for Unions.  Currently, all Southern states except Kentucky and West Virginia have Right-To-Work Laws, which allow Employees to receive the benefits of a Union Contract without having to join a Union individually, creating what Labor calls the freeloader problem.

While 2.4 million Southern Workers belong to Unions, Labor Affiliates represent more than 2.9 million Employees, meaning that Unions are forced to spend precious resources negotiating and enforcing contracts for more than half a million workers in the South who aren't members.

The latest BLS numbers echoed trends found in earlier reports.

The data shows a continuing Union Wage advantage, with Median Weekly Earnings for Union Members ($980) more than $200 more than those for Non-Members ($776).

Union Leaders feel the urgency to continue Labor's momentum in the South, however modest, but they also recognize that defending recent gains - much less growing in the often Union-hostile climate in Southern states - will require a long-term commitment to Southern Organizing.

As National AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre, who’s been at the forefront of Labor's efforts to expand in the region, recently told Facing South: "If anybody's ‘not committing’ until 2022, ‘coming in from outside’ of the South, ‘they're just looking for a photo op.’"

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