Membership in Many Unions Down; Numbers Good for Others

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By Jaclyn Diaz

Plant closings and anti-union legislation caused some of the nation’s largest unions to lose thousands of members in 2016, a labor professor told Bloomberg BNA April 6.

Some labor groups have struggled to bounce back and organize new members quickly in response to these changes, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The United Steelworkers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists have especially had difficulty organizing workers in their industries, she told Bloomberg BNA.

The Steelworkers lost about 20,000 members in 2016; the United Food and Commercial Workers about 14,000; and the Teamsters and Machinists about 5,500 each, according to disclosure forms filed recently with the Department of Labor. The DOL requires large unions to report financial information annually on LM-2 forms.

The nation’s largest labor groups--including National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers--file in September and aren’t included in this analysis.

Labor leaders can blame themselves for the loss of members, Richard Berman, with the Center for Union Facts, told Bloomberg BNA April 5. The Center for Union Facts is an interest group critical of labor unions that posts its own breakdown of LM-2 information.

The LM-2 reports show unions spend millions on political activities and officer pay, a questionable practice for labor groups struggling to maintain membership, Berman said.

2016 Good Year for UAW, SEIU

Last year wasn’t a loss for all unions.

Yes, the Steelworkers went from 591,318 in 2015 to 571,179, the Teamsters from 1,279,064 to 1,273,695, the Machinists from 568,814 to 563,314 and the United Food and Commercial Workers from 1,271,150 to 1,256,441, based on their LM-2 forms.

But the United Auto Workers and Service Employees International Union saw increases in membership in 2016, the LM-2s indicate. The UAW went from 408,639 to 415,963 and SEIU went from 1,887,941 to 1,901,161.

Last year was the seventh straight one for growth for the UAW. The increase was no surprise to the union, Dennis Williams, the UAW president, said during a Feb. 26 press roundtable.

“Investments are still heavy into the auto industry in the U.S., and so far, so good,” he said. In January, Fiat Chrysler announced a $1 billion investment to expand factories in Ohio and Michigan and create 2,000 jobs. The investment is part of a larger plan to invest $5.3 billion in U.S. plants, as part of a 2015 labor deal with the UAW.

The UAW continues to organize workers at auto plants in the South. The union is battling Volkswagen in court over the company’s refusal to recognize production and maintenance workers at its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The UAW is also working to organize employees at a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., but has been fighting with the company for permission to negotiate with the workers. No election has been held and Nissan has blocked the UAW’s efforts to organize, the union says.

The union is also setting its sights on organizing Tesla Inc. manufacturing workers at the company’s auto plant in Fremont, Calif. Workers went to the union with concerns that included allegations of unsafe working conditions.

The SEIU has been working to organize a variety of workers in different industries including airport workers, health-care employees, janitors and security staff, an SEIU spokesman said.

Higher Ed Organizing Boosts Numbers

The UAW and SEIU increased membership, in part, because of a focus on organizing large units of workers at universities, Bronfenbrenner said.

The UAW intends to continue those efforts in 2017, a union representative told Bloomberg BNA. The union is currently organizing at Columbia University, Boston College and Harvard University, among other schools.

The union is willing to spend big on these campaigns. It spent $704,967 on organizing activities with Barnard College contingent faculty, according to the LM-2. Barnard professors ratified a first contract March 24. The UAW has also spent $294,551 on public relations firm Berlin Rosen, on advertising for the campaign to organize Columbia University graduate student workers, the report shows. That issue is still being dealt with at the NLRB.

Berman said manufacturing unions should stay out of academia.

“If I was an autoworker I‘d be worried about why my money is being used for student teachers. The UAW is trying to survive. They’re finding niche opportunities to get new membership because their traditional industry, manufacturing, is not working for them,” he said. “Manufacturing unions don’t know about the academic environment. They are not used to that industry.”

The union has a history of organizing students and contingent faculty at public universities, a UAW representative told Bloomberg BNA. The manufacturing union has plenty of experience in academia, they said.

Critic Questions Union Spending

“Unions are supporting political groups and issues” rather than focusing on collective bargaining or addressing workers’ grievances, Berman said. High pay is also creating a schism between blue-collar workers and union officers, he said.

Galen Munroe, the Teamsters’ senior communications coordinator, told Bloomberg BNA that the union’s pay “is set by the constitution which is governed by delegates elected by the membership.”

Some of the highest paid union leaders in 2016 were Teamsters President James Hoffa, who was paid $386,344, and Marc Perrone, president of UFCW, who was paid $354,568.

Unions invested heavily in political activities and lobbying in 2016, spending between $3.7 million and $61 million. That’s several million dollars more than in the average year because of presidential and congressional elections, the records show.

But these groups also spent much more than that--up to $142 million--on what they call “representational” activities. Those expenditures cover unions’ bread-and-butter work: contract negotiations, grievance filings and organizing campaigns, Munroe said April 6.

“Political activities” generally involve member-to-member activism and work site visits by union officials. Member-to-member activism includes training, supporting fellow union members, and other business. Political donations don’t fall under this umbrella. All donations to political candidates come out of the unions’ political action committees.

The union’s focus is always on members, Munroe said in response to the criticism. In 2016, the Teamsters spent $7.7 million on political activities, less than in 2015 when they spent $8.4 million on those activities, records show.

“Our primary focus is always on representing our members and the LM-2 report reflects that goal. Every election cycle is critical so we don’t believe there is a significant difference from year to year in political activity expenditures,” he said. “We are seeing more and more legislative attacks on workers’ rights on both the state and federal levels, regardless of whether or not it is a presidential or congressional election cycle.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Christopher Opfer at

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