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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: Union membership is growing again in Washington

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

On this Labor Day, amid a longtime downward trend in national union membership and following a recent Supreme Court decision celebrated by union busters, it’s interesting to note that it’s a relatively good time for organized labor in Washington.

Union membership has been growing in this state for the past three years. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show an increase of 150,000 union members in Washington from 2016 to 2018, about a fifth of all workers in the state. That’s one of the highest rates in the country.

A new report from the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center makes the case that union jobs are contributing to both workers’ and the overall health of the state in a variety of ways that go beyond the obvious matter of wages. And, as unions adapt to the needs of a younger generation of workers trying to negotiate the gig economy, public support is rising; A Gallup poll released last week showed 64% of Americans support labor unions, a rise of 16 percentage points since 2009.

It is, in other words, not a bad time for labor.

“I think there is some reason for optimism,” said David West of the research center, a project of South Seattle College.

Washington has long been a union stronghold, relative to a country where organized labor is in decline. The addition of new union members in recent years – with a boost of 65,000 in 2018 – followed a period of slight decline. One possible factor is that unions here have been gearing up in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision earlier this year; the court ruled that unions cannot compel workers to pay dues or even fees to cover bargaining.

For public employee unions, that meant some workers who had not been union members but were paying a representation fee, had to decide whether to go all in or all out with their unions. David Groves, communications director of the Washington Labor Council, said unions have done a good job of reaching out to their workers and bringing more of them into membership in recent years.

He noted that the number of union members in Washington increased by a significant proportion over the number of workers represented by a union.

“I think a lot of that is attributable to Janus preparation,” Groves said, calling it a “positive consequence of a bad ruling.”

The Labor Center report was released Thursday, and it outlines a number of benefits for individuals and the state, including the following:

    Union workers earn 7.2% more on average than non-union workers, resulting in $3,500 on average per worker. Women and workers of color in unions earn 6% more than their non-union counterparts. This advantage is more pronounced in areas of Washington outside the Seattle metro area; the report’s authors estimate that union workers earn an average of $4,900 a year more.

    They are 20% more likely to have health care coverage and 37% more likely to be covered by a retirement plan – benefits that play an increasingly significant role for an aging population.

    The wage advantage is larger for less educated workers (20% higher for unionized employees) and immigrants (17%).

Groves said that figures such as those reinforce a growing sense among workers that the economy, while strong in many ways, has not produced widespread benefits for workers.

“People are still struggling to meet their basic needs,” he said. “More and more they’re seeing all the economic gains go to the top 1%.”

Rep. Timm Ormsby, president of the Spokane Regional Labor Council, and Tina Morrison, the council’s secretary-treasurer, said union membership in Spokane and Spokane Valley is at roughly 15%, lower than the state average of 20%. They talked about the evolving nature of labor unions in a time when the “30 years and a gold watch” economy, as Ormsby put it, is long gone.

Now, with many young people working in a gig economy where pay can be lousy and benefits nonexistent, it’s important to bring younger workers into the movement and find ways to make unions work for them, they said.

“The diversity of the union movement is fascinating,” said Morrison – a bassoonist who belongs to a musicians union. “There is not one bucket you can put everybody in.”