The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) bill comes at a time when union membership, after decades of decline, is beginning to creep up. In January, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership grew by 428,000 in 2008, increasing the percentage of union members in the work force to 12.4%, up from 12.1% in 2007. Overall, 16.1 million American workers carry union cards. (In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data is available, the union membership rate was 20.1%.)
The public sector accounted for the majority of the new members, according to the bureau, which noted that government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than were private-sector employees. In 2008, 782,000 individuals employed in retail trades carried union cards — down from 881,000 the previous year — representing 5.2% of the retail work force.
The spike in union membership is likely to be touted by business groups as evidence that the proposed Free Choice legislation is not needed since union membership is on the upswing under the current law. However, supporters of EFCA and pro-labor advocates contend that the main growth in union membership has not occurred in private industry or trades, and that it remains difficult for private-sector workers to form a union through the National Labor Relations Board process.
According to the bureau, 36.8% of government employees belong to unions, compared to 7.6% of workers in the overall private sector.