Michigan union membership dipped in 2016

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Union membership in Michigan declined by about 1 percent in 2016, according to statistics released Tuesday by the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said the number of union members in Michigan dropped from 621,000 in 2015 to 606,000 last year, going from 15.2 to 14.4 percent.

The Michigan decrease was part of 0.4 percent drop in national union membership in 2016 that saw the number of labor-affiliated workers in the U.S. drop from more than 14.8 million in 2015 to 14.6 million in 2016.

Dale Belman, a professor in the Michigan State University School of Labor and Industrial Relations, said the decline in union membership nationally could be attributed to the prevalence of so-called right-to-work laws that prohibit agreements between employees and labor unions that mandate all employees pay union dues. Michigan passed such a measure in late 2012 that went into effect in March 2013.

“Right-to-work has allowed public workers such as teachers who may not have been too keen on paying union dues to opt out. This would be consistent with the identical decline in the member percentage and coverage percentage,” he said.

“My impression is that in the ‘core’ industries, such as manufacturing and construction, right-to-work has not had much effect. But public workers are more likely to figure, in view of the limitations on collective bargaining and the ongoing economic pressure, that unions are not worth the cost since the public workers get the same benefits whether they are members or not.”

The Labor Department said Thursday that there were 7.1 million public-sector employees that belonged to a union in 2016, compared with 7.4 million unionized workers in the private sector.

The agency said the union membership rate for public-sector workers last year was 34.4 percent, which was substantially higher than the 6.4 percent rate for private-sector workers.

Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said union membership is known to fluctuate from year to year.

Vernuccio said other factors that could cause movement in the union membership numbers include “business climates (and) where the jobs are being created,” noting that right-to-work states have typically outpaced union-friendly states in job growth in recent years.

But Vernuccio said he was surprised to see the national union membership numbers fall in a year when the U.S. unemployment rate ended below 5 percent.

“We’ve been seeing trends of drops across the country, but union members in Michigan went up last year,” he said.

Belman said some of the variance in union membership could be attributed to statistical errors.

Michigan’s right-to-work law, which took effect in March 2013, prohibits union contracts from requiring “fair share” fees as a condition of employment to pay for the cost of collective bargaining agreements.

The law was challenged in court, but the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in July 2015 that about 35,000 state employees should have never been subject to paying union fees, giving conservative supporters of the state’s right-to-work law a major victory.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing