Union membership had plummeted by 24 percent in Indiana over the last decade, and fewer than one out of every 10 Hoosier workers now belong to a union.
Statewide, the number of union members has fallen from 327,000 in 2003 to 249,000 last year, according to newly released figures from Stats Indiana, the state's data center.
The number of workers who are represented by unions, whether they pay dues or not, has dropped 22 percent from 352,00 to 275,000 over the same period.
In 2001, 14.3 percent of Indiana's labor force – or 395,000 workers – belonged to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, that percentage dropped to 9.3 percent.
"Proud union home" yard signs still decorate lawns throughout Northwest Indiana, but unions no longer have the numbers they once did.
Automation has shrunk the headcounts at many local manufacturing plants. The U.S. Steel Gary Works steel mill for instance now employs less than a fifth of the 30,000 workers it once did.
Union members point toward concerted political efforts to shrink their numbers, such as with the right to work law the Indiana state legislation passed a few years ago, which allows workers to opt out of paying union dues even if they get union representation. Labor Studies professors have assigned blame to the ease with which companies can now move operations to foreign countries or union-averse states in the South or the Sunbelt.
James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, has argued the collective bargaining system where one contract covers everyone was designed for the industrial economy of the 1930s and has become outdated in an era where many employees want individual raises and performance-based promotions.
Dan Murchek, president of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Labor, said a movement has been afoot over the last decades to break unions, and it has weakened the middle class and lowered wages.
"They're coming after us with deep pockets and lots of money," he said. "Unions has a strong tradition of supporting the American Dream of being get good jobs and good benefits. It's difficult to live and support a family if you're working in a store making $10, $12 an hour with no benefits."
Unions protect employees who would not otherwise have a voice or level playing field in the workplace, Murchek said. They remain strong in Northwest Indiana, where they are an embedded part of the community, he said.
Vast forces are behind the decline in union membership, said Mark Crouch, an associate professor of labor studies at Indiana University in Fort Wayne. Modern advances in technology and communications have created what academics call capital mobility, which basically means that employers can establish manufacturing operations anywhere in the world.
Businesses could make the same widget in Indianapolis or Bangladesh, and they often want to save as much money as possible on employee wages and benefits. He cited the case of an automotive supplier that moved an plant from Fort Wayne to Oklahoma so it could hire nonunion labor.
"They pick places that have no history of unionism or have an anti-union sentiment so there will never be a union in the facility," Crouch said.
Companies often use economic downturns or slowdowns in their business as excuses for closing union factories, and consolidating operations in non-union states, he said. Union Tank Car Co. for instance closed a large East Chicago factory that once employed hundreds and shifted production to non-union shops in Louisiana and Texas.
Unions can combat the dwindling membership by organizing more workplaces, Crouch said. But that task becomes increasingly difficult to do because companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. fight to suppress such efforts. Politicians also intervene, as they did when the United Auto Workers recently made an unsuccessful bid to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee.
"They politicians went around terrorizing people, saying new jobs would come to the plant only if the union voted no," he said. "They use an amazing array of terror tactics whenever workers try to get union representation, whether it's in manufacturing, retail or the public sector."
The recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that Northwest University football players can unionize could be a spark for organized labor, Crouch said. But unions have been hamstrung over the years by a number of court rulings that have curtailed their ability to organize for higher pay and benefits, he said.
"I've been studying this stuff for 35 years and it's gotten worse and worse and worse the longer I've studied it," he said. "But there are of course people who are working hard, trying to change that."