Union membership in Northwest Indiana is holding steady despite membership rates at their lowest level in decades in the rest of the state and the country as a whole.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows union membership dipped to 9.1 percent of Indiana's workforce in 2012, a drop down from 22 percent in 1983. It's the first time Indiana's union workforce has fallen below 10 percent since the government started tracking individual state data in 1989.
Although some of the region’s union locals have seen drops in membership, union officials say their membership levels remain at pre-recession levels.
“Basically we’ve stayed pretty strong,” said Dan Murchek, president Northwest Indiana Federation of Labor and president Lake County Police Association.
He credits the region’s union tradition, which was born in its steel mills and manufacturing facilities, for retaining its influence with employees in those mills, the BP Refinery, its building trades and the public sector.
“The unions are responsible for the good wages and benefits of the middle class, and people don’t forget that,” Murchek said.
Northwest Indiana has had an influx of union workers from other parts of the state and country since the BP Whiting Refinery expansion project began in 2008, said Dave Misch, business manager for United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 210 based in Merrillville.
“There are still 7,000 craft workers there on a daily bases,” he said, adding that others projects including the Munster Community Hospital expansion, NiSource’s modernization of its Schahfer Generating Station in Wheatfield and the construction of the new Lake Central High School all are generating a large number of union jobs.
Nationwide, both union and non-union plumbers depends heavily on housing and light commercial construction, Misch said.
“They were decimated by the recession of 2009 and the banking and housing crisis,” he said. “So we actually had a lot of members leave industry and find new jobs elsewhere. Those markets are beginning to come back as the economy recovers. Some members are filtering back and there are jobs for them so membership is back on the rise.”
Randy Palmateer, executive manager of the 50,000-member Northwest Indiana Building & Construction Trades Council, said industrial work has kept his union locals at high membership levels.
“We pumped millions of dollars into our training,” Palmateer said. “The NWIBCTC has a great relationship with Northwest Indiana contractors they work for and that’s how we survived.
“Our main focus should be on training and educating younger members on where we came from and running our unions like a business,” Palmeteer said. “We’re highly skilled and trained. … It’s a sad day in this country when they’re coming after the people that keep the country going.”
Jim Robinson, United Steelworkers District 7 director, said the steelworkers' union isn’t “dead.”
“And I don’t say ‘yet’ because we ain’t going to die,” Robinson said. “The steelworkers have had our share of membership loss in last five years since the economy tanked, but it’s only been a handful.”
Robinson said he’s observed that any big loss in union membership has been in the public sector. And although he contends the so-called right-to-work law, which took effect in March 2012, allows “people to freeload” on the dues, skills and work ethic of union members, he doesn’t believe the law has been the reason for union losses to date..
“I think the loss in public employment – police, fire, teachers – is the result of the economic situation,” Robinson said.
“And that will rebound,” he said. “The big issue is a public policy question. The middle class in America, to a large extent, was built on the level of unionization and as a result people have the ability to raise wages and negotiate their benefits.”
Currently it’s hard to organize given the political climate of the country where there are very few and only minor penalties for violating organizing rights, Robinson said.
“So we have a lot of people who want to organize but when a company finds out, people lose their jobs and as a result there’s (union membership) stagnation,” he said. “I don’t believe it will last forever. There were extremely low (union membership) levels going into Depression, and people finally fought back and things changed. Although I’m not saying history repeats itself, certain trends in history don’t go away.”