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"Unions have outlived their usefulness. There needs to be another way to get working people what they need." Talk back on the boards.

National Labor Relations Board
Politics and Economy:
Downward Mobility
More on This Story:
State of the Unions

Unions used to be a way of life in the United States. The battles waged by early trade and industrial unions were essential in creating many of the "givens" of the modern workplace — the minimum wage, the 40-hour week, safety rules, workman's compensation insurance and other benefits. (See NOW's Glossary of Labor Terms.) According to the Economic Policy Institute, unionized workers on average earn 11.5 percent more than non-unionized workers, and realize even greater advantages in benefit packages.

There's little doubt that union membership is falling. The number of persons belonging to a union fell by 280,000 over the course of 2002 to 16.1 million. As the figures below illustrate, whether or not there is a union in your life depends very much on where you live and what you do for work. Today less than one in 10 workers in private-sector industries is a member of a union. Many of today's low-wage industries, like childcare and eldercare, sales workers, and hospitality workers are notoriously hard to organize.

State of the Unions

Percentage of wage and salary workers who are union members, 2002:  13.1%
Percentage of wage and salary workers who were union members, 1983:  20.1%
Unionization rates for government workers, 2001:  37.4%
Unionization rate of private sector employees, 2001:  9%
Unionization rate among protective services workers (police, fire fighters):  43.1%
Unionization rate among transportation and public utilities workers:  23.5%
Unionization rate among construction workers:  18.4%
Unionization rate among professional workers (including teachers):  19.1%
Unionization rate among manufacturing workers:  14.6%
Unionization rate among sales workers:  3.5%

The main work issue for many Americans is job security. In September 2003, the jobless rate was 6.1%. It might not seem like much when compared to some European nations, but it is something Americans haven't been familiar with of late.

Observers have noted that these job losses are not just affecting one sector, unlike the large losses in manufacturing during the 1970s. Instead, all sectors of the economy — blue- and white-collar workers — are feeling the pain. Now every state has a Web site dedicated to aiding its workers. You can find information on unemployment compensation, job listings, and advice for your locale on our Employment Resource Map.

Sources: THE NEW YORK TIMES; National Labor Relations Board; Bureau of Labor Statistics; OECD Statistics; Japanese Labor Statistics

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