TN? WI? Union Membership Growing Where You’d Least Expect It.

Protesters in Nashville in 2011When new Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers were released last week showing union density rates holding firm nationally at 11.3 percent, organized labor took a semi-bow. After all, there was a dearth of pro-union legislation in 2013 while anti-union bills flooded many statehouses by the dozens, so maintaining the status quo was nothing short of a feat by some accounts.

But if you don’t think ‘not failing’ is cause enough to celebrate, a look at some of the details of the numbers reveals the brightest spots in this glimmer of statistical hope. Tennessee, for instance, well-known for its extremist Republicans and general anti-unionism, lead the nation in union membership growth by percentage in 2013. Tennessee unions added 31,000 members, boosting their statewide percentage to 6.1. The addition of jobs at General Motors’ Spring Hill, TN, plant can take some of the credit, but it is difficult to deny the trend of workers demanding respect as a real driver as well:

Ethan Link, program director with the Laborers’ International Union of North America’s Southeast Laborers’ District Council, said the 25 percent growth in union membership in Tennessee could be attributed to a variety of factors — increases in construction and manufacturing jobs because of the improving economy, ramped up organizing efforts and a growing sense of disparity among workers between their company’s bottom line and their own paychecks.

“It’s not just service unions or industrial or building trades, it’s really all of us,” Link said. “I don’t think you can underestimate from the workers’ standpoint how attitudes have been changing. People don’t always join unions when times are hard or wages are down. They join unions when they see inequality or disrespect.”

Mike Herron, bargaining chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 1853, said that unions are becoming more popular in the south because workers are demanding better treatment.

“People are recognizing the fact (that) if they want a high-quality, well-paid job with benefits attached then joining the union is a right thing to do,” Herron said.

Ethan Link argued that part of the gains have come from unions revamping their recruitment and outreach programs.  As they face continued barriers from the state’s Republican controlled legislature, many unions have shifted money away from fighting them and put it towards organizing:

“When I saw the numbers, I believed them — but I am surprised,” he said. “There is a very organized, well-funded campaign against unions in activity and membership. And it has never been harder to be a union and be active than right now, because of what state legislature and groups are doing.”

In Tennessee, all eyes are on the unionization battle at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant. There, management and the United Auto Workers are looking to install a German-style workers council that goes hand-in-hand with the company’s business model of “codetermination.”  Out-of-state money and power is hoping to influence this bellwhether fight, “warning that if the UAW succeeds here, that will lend momentum to unionize two other prestigious German-owned plants: the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama and the BMW plant in South Carolina.”

Another unlikely BLS outcome was reported in Wisconsin, a state well-versed in out-of-state interests tampering with labor battles. After Scott Walker successfully passed his anti-bargaining bill, Act 10, the impact was swift: In 2012, Wisconsin had the nation’s third largest decrease in union membership. But in 2013, trade unions grew in the Badger State. The percentage of wage and salary workers belonging to unions rose from 11.25 percent to 12.34, the seventh biggest gain out of any state in the union. Admittedly, union leaders and intellectuals have no explanation for the gains.

“That was the first thing that jumped out at me when I opened the spreadsheet,” Barry Eidlin, a University of Wisconsin sociologist, told Daniel Bice. “It was definitely not what I was expecting at all.”

Union leaders could not provide insight either, though the focus on organizing was echoed:

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, was at a loss to explain the increase.

Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Bill Brockmiller suggested some unions have shifted some resources back into organizing after focusing on lobbying activity during the Legislature’s 2011 move to rein in public sector unions and the subsequent recall elections.

Brockmiller noted that some locals within the district have made small gains.

Even anti-union voices like David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Foundation, could not spin the numbers in their favor.  He, like everyone, is simply confused.  

“Right now it’s just interesting,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “There’s no pat explanation for it.”

Unlike the national figures, where either the pro- or anti-union side could claim victory in the face of the status quo, workers in Tennesee and Wisconsin have reason to cheer. These are the David vs. Goliath states; and while the giant may not have been slayed in 2013, he certainly took some good wacks.

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Chaz Bolte
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