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Oregon unions gain members, face uncertain future growth

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

STATEWIDE In late January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released national data that showed unions, despite the economy, grew for the second year in a row in 2008. Membership increased from 12.1% to 12.4%; the number of union and non-union members covered by a collective bargaining agreement increased from 13.3% to 13.7%.

In Oregon the growth rate was bigger. The number of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements jumped from 14.7% of the workforce in 2006 to 17.4% in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers. At the end of last year, 272,000 workers, or 17.4% of the state's workforce, were either union members or fell under a collective bargaining umbrella.

Those numbers appear impressive. However, they may not represent the entire labor picture in Oregon. Both Don McIntosh, the associate editor at Portland-based Northwest Labor Press, and Shauna Ballo, the spokesperson for Service Employees International Union Local 49, say the growth rates should be taken with a grain of salt. State-by-state data is extrapolated from a national survey of about 60,000 households, not from state-specific data.

Nor do the BLS numbers show what type of growth that occured. Ballo points out how SEIU 49's biggest increase in membership came from workers in one single industry forming a union, not from growth across multiple sectors.

The economy will provide even more complications for 2009 union-membership numbers. Some indicators look good; many more look bad. Public agencies, the health care industry and construction firms working on major public works projects haven't seen layoffs, which bodes well for union members in those sectors.

But McIntosh points out that sectors that traditionally have been union strongholds, like manufacturing, are in serious decline.

Even intangibles like employees' fears about the economy and their jobs will have an effect.

"Everybody is getting hit right now," Ballo says.

"You're going to see people who say, 'Wow, joining a union would be a good idea, but if I'm seen talking to the people who are organizing, I'm going to get fired.'"       ABRAHAM HYATT

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