A Rising Tide of Unionism

Union forces have been gaining strength in Massachusetts, if their membership rolls are any guide.

An estimated 30,000 workers joined unions in 1998, bringing the state’s total organized labor force to about 453,000 people, according to federal statistics.

And there is other good news for local labor leaders: Organized labor’s share of the total work force also grew last year. About 15.9 percent of Massachusetts employees were union members in 1998, compared to 15.1 percent in 1997, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the national front, however, the proportion of unionized workers fell from 14.1 percent to 13.9 percent.

Still, the Massachusetts figures pale in comparison to the days when unions claimed more than a third of the state’s workers. That “high tide of unionism” came more than half a century ago, in the 1930s, when 37 to 38 percent of the work force was unionized, according to Robert S.J. Ross, chairman of the sociology department at Clark University in Worcester.

Following massive job losses during the Depression, organizing drives were buoyed by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which brought legitimacy to unions across the country. Part of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the law granted private sector workers involved in interstate commerce the right to organize and collectively bargain employment contracts.

“By the onset of World War II, there was an enormous explosion of union membership in Massachusetts,” says James Green, a labor historian at UMass-Boston. By 1940, there were more than 307,000 union members across the state – fewer people than today, but a much larger share of the total work force.

Almost all union members at the time worked in the private sector. (Public employees didn’t win bargaining rights until the 1960s.) Most major industries were union strongholds–the utilities, the shipyards, clothing factories, steel mills, and auto plants.

When manufacturing slowed in later years, and textile plants, then shipyards and auto plants started to close, union losses were replaced by new members in the defense industry, at companies such as Raytheon and General Electric.

Today the economy is fueled by the service sector, and some of the biggest union gains are among government employees. “The story of the last 20 years is a drastic decline in private sector unionization rates and an increase in public sector unionization rates,” says Ross of Clark University.

Although he estimates that more than one-third of public employees are unionized today, because the public sector is still a relatively small part of the economy, it doesn’t make for a very high overall unionization rate.

The three largest unions in the state are public employees–the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the National Association of Government Employees, and the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees. Together they account for 174,000 people, about 38 percent of all union members in the state.

But Green says none of these numbers tell the whole story of union power in Massachusetts. “Since the 1970s, the leadership of organized labor in Massachusetts has been pretty skillful in organizing the impact of the members they do have, far more than in most other states,” Green said.

This has been partly out of necessity, he said. Unions were so poorly organized in 1981 they could not beat back Proposition 21/2 , the tax-limiting law that decimated municipal budgets across the state and led to public employee layoffs and delayed pay raises.

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Today union efforts are boosted by at least two state senators who were once full-time union officials, Stephen Lynch and Steven Tolman, plus Senate President Thomas Birmingham, who was a labor lawyer before he ran for office, Green notes.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if organized labor has more influence in this state legislature than in any state legislature in the country,” Green said.