Washington state still ranks high in union strength

By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer

Fewer people today belong to labor unions than did 20 years ago.

However, organized labor remains strong in Washington state, thanks partly to the Boeing Co.’s Machinists and engineers unions.

Nationally, union membership has fallen from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 12.3 percent at the end of 2009, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report. However, Washington has the fifth-highest percentage of union workers, 20.2 percent, in the country.

Union membership here has its perks.

Members of labor groups in Washington make an average of $3.05 per hour more than non-union workers. Nearly 82 percent of union workers have health insurance as compared to 61 percent of the non-unionized work force. While less than half, 48 percent, of Washington workers who don’t belong to unions receive a retirement plan, almost 79 percent of union workers do.

Those benefits and the large union presence at Boeing mean labor groups and analysts around the world keep close tabs on how the Machinists and Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace fare when negotiating with Boeing.

Leaders for the Machinists union characterized their 2008 strike as having nationwide significance. In an Oct. 15, 2008, message to their striking union members, the Machinists wrote: “This fight is not just for the benefit of the union workers of the Boeing Co. It is a fight for the middle class and maintaining this middle class for years to come.”

Unions helped establish the middle class, said Tom McCarty, president of SPEEA. But that standard of living has waned as fewer people have joined unions.

National organized labor groups, like the AFL-CIO, saw SPEEA’s 2000 strike as a recruiting tool. Richard Trumka, then the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, described the significance of the SPEEA strike in 2000: “This is an important strike. White-collar workers around the nation are saying, ‘Look, we need a voice. We need something.’ And they’re trying to decide whether a union is that voice or not.”

South Carolina, where Boeing will put a second 787 assembly line, has one of the lowest rates, 4.5 percent, of union membership. Only Arkansas and North Carolina reported lower union rates in 2009, according to a report released in January by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.