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Indiana's unionization rate a third of what it was a few decades ago

United Steelworkers members march from downtown Gary to U.S. Steel Gary Works during a protest in 2015. Indiana's unionization fell to 8.9 percent in 2017.

Indiana's unionization rate fell to 8.9 percent last year, the lowest it's been in decades and likely the lowest since the 1930s.

About 25 percent of Indiana's workforce was unionized as recently as 1983, and 1 out of every 5 Hoosiers was in a union as recently as 1990, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The state's unionization rate dipped by 1.5 percentage points last year and is down from 12.4 percent just a decade ago.

Indiana University Northwest assistant professor of economics Micah Pollak said that was due at least partly to the prolonged, if slow, period of economic expansion.

"Unionization rates and the public perception of unions are generally strongly counter-cyclical. The highest unionization rates in the United States are during times of economic collapse, such as the Great Depression," Pollak said. "When the economic outlook is poor, income is dropping and unemployment rising, workers turn to unions as a tool to preserve their jobs, income and economic future."

The economy has been growing since the Great Recession of 2007-2008. The lowest unionization rates typically occur during periods of economic growth, Pollak said.

"In the recent years, the economic outlook has been improving," he said. "Consumer confidence is at an all-time high, while unemployment is the lowest it’s been in years. Under these conditions, the short-term benefits of unionization may appear much less valuable relative to the cost of union dues. Workers in unionized trades may find it hard to justify the union dues when their skills are in high demand and jobs are plentiful. At the same time, corporations may find less resistance to 'right-to-work' and similar laws that weaken unions."

But economic growth doesn't keep rolling on forever, Pollak said.

"Workers may want to be cautious and take a long-term view," he said. "Should there be a major economic correction in the United States in the next few years, the very unions which they are abandoning might be their economic lifelines."

Unions protect the rights of workers and strengthen their earning potential, Pollak said.

"In recent decades, with the decline in manufacturing employment, stagnant household incomes and a shrinking middle class, unions are increasingly important for maintaining the balance of power between employees and employers in the labor market," he said. "Here in Northwest Indiana, unions are responsible for slowing the decline in employment and wages in metal and manufacturing industries as well as playing an important role in safety training. Without unions, there would be less employment, lower wages and more workplace injuries here in Northwest Indiana."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.