Union membership in Arkansas climbed to the highest level in nearly a decade in 2017 as nearly 5.1% of the state’s 1,209,000 employed wage and salary workers have an affiliation with organized labor, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
At the close of 2017, there were 62,000 workers in Arkansas who held membership in a trade labor organization, up from 47,000 a year ago when 3.1% of the state’s 1,186,000 gainfully employed workers had their name on union rolls.
Additionally, about 6.1% of the state’s employed labor pool, or 74,000 workers, reported no union affiliation in 2017 but whose jobs were covered by a trade or an organized labor contract. That is up from 59,000, or 5% of the union members and non-affiliated workers who benefit from an employee association contract in 2016, BLS data shows.
The 62,000 additional union members added to Arkansas payrolls were part of a stellar year in 2017 for the state’s brimming labor pool. During the summer, Arkansas’ unemployment rate held steady at an all-time low of 3.4% for several months as the state labor market led the nation in the percentage of nonfarm jobs. In addition, Arkansas hit an all-time high of total employed workers on state payrolls in September, reaching 1,330,925.
Arkansas had the highest number and percentage of union workers in the state in 2008, when there were 68,000 or 5.9% of the state’s employed workforce who were affiliated with one of the state’s various trade shops. The lowest level of union membership in Arkansas occurred in 2012 when there were only 37,000, or 3.2% of the state’s employed workers tied to organized labor.
James Nickels, executor director of Arkansas chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said he had not seen the BLS report but expressed skepticism at union growth in Arkansas last year.
“That’s surprising to me,” Nickels said of the yearly gain. “I don’t know where the numbers are coming from.”
Top union officials with the state chapter of the AFL-CIO and Arkansas Education Association officials did not respond to request for comments for this story.
Nationwide, the total number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions ended the year at 14.8 million, up a meager 262,000 from 2016. Percentage wise, however, that leaves the nation’s union membership rate – the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions — unchanged at 10.7% percent in 2017, BLS data shows.
Among the key highlights from the 2017 organized labor survey was that the union membership rate of public-sector workers at 34.4% continued to be more than five times higher than that of private- sector workers at only 6.5%. Also, union workers had median weekly earnings of $1,041 compared to $829 for non-union workers in the same job.
The pro-labor Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which noted Arkansas’ organized labor gains in a Twitter post over the weekend, said the slight gains in union membership across the U.S. were southern focused. Besides Arkansas, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia also saw their union rolls increase. Still, the progressive think tank noted a longer-term analysis of the BLS data is needed before drawing conclusions.
“It is difficult to use one-year changes in union membership trends to assess underlying dynamics,” EPI analyst and former president Lawrence Mishel said in a research note. “For one, the small samples involved for particular subgroups produce year-to-year volatility that should not be mistaken for a trend.”
Unlike Nickels, national labor officials applauded the slight organized labor gains, which reversed several years of flat or declining union membership. AFL-CiO President Richard Trumka said the new BLS data reflects critical organizing victories across a range of industries.
“In the face of a challenging year, the power of working people is on the rise,” Trumka said in a statement. “But the (BLS) data is more than numbers on a page, it’s a growing movement of working people that can’t be measured as easily. When more union members fill the halls of power, when wages rise and inequality shrinks, and when a growing number of people see that we can and will change the rules of this economy – that’s when you’ll know unions are on the rise.”
Added Lee Sanders, AFSCME’s national president: “Despite relentless, dishonest attacks from wealthy special interests, working people continue to come together for a voice on the job and a seat at the table. Union membership held steady in 2017, a testament to the resilience of people fighting strong headwinds to continue organizing even in a hostile environment.”
SUPREME COURT CHALLENGE
Separately, national labor officials are also awaiting an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling that workplace and labor experts say will have an enormous impact on the future growth of the union movement across the country. In the case of Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31, the National Right to Work Committee is asking the nation’s high court to read into the First Amendment a right to work law for the entire public sector.
If the Supreme Court rules in Janus’ favor, more than 5 million public school teachers, firefighters, police officers and other government employees now required to pay money to union officials just to keep their jobs would be free to decide individually whether to make voluntary union payments.
Oral arguments before the high court are now expected to occur in late February with a decision in the landmark case expected by March 21.
According to union officials, the First Amendment has never been so interpreted and doing so would conflict with the Supreme Court’s long-established deference to state decisions about their public workforces. At issue in the case is whether non-union members, who share in the wages, benefits and protections that have been negotiated into a collectively bargained contract, may be required to pay their fair share for the cost of those negotiations.
On Friday (Jan. 19), the AFL-CIO and a broad coalition of organized labor groups, religious organizations, civil rights groups or and academics filed amicus briefs asking the high court asking to defend the working people’s right to effectively organize and negotiate.
In a brief submitted by the National Teachers Association, the nation’s largest professional teachers’ union argues that the case’s backers are attempting to write the rules further in favor of their own special corporate interests and other billionaires.
“The politically-motivated backers behind Janus know this case is nothing more than a smokescreen for what they’re really trying to do,” said NEA President Eskelsen García. “Point blank, this case is an assault on the freedoms of working people to earn a better life for themselves and their families.”
The National Right to Work Foundation (NRTWF), which union officials say is tied to the Koch brothers and other moneyed corporate interests, argue the case will end labor laws authorizing and promoting monopoly bargaining that top union bosses to offer the only employee perspective on workplace matters at the negotiating table.