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Union membership declined in Indiana again last year

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Indiana union membership fell again last year, dropping for the third straight year as part of an ongoing national trend.

The number of workers in the Hoosier state represented by unions fell to 296,000, down from a recent high of 335,000 in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of Indiana workers represented by unions has dropped to 9.8% in 2019, down from 12% in 2014 and a recent high of 12.4% in 2011.

And the number of workers who actually belong to unions in Indiana fell to 249,000 in 2019, down from 304,000 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of workers who pay union dues dropped to 8.3% last year, down from 10.4% in 2016 and 11.3% in 2011.

"In the last few decades, union membership in Indiana has declined dramatically, mirroring a national trend driven recently by 'right-to-work' legislation. In 2019, only 9.8% of all employed wage and salary workers in Indiana were represented by unions," Indiana University Northwest Assistant Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said. "This is up slightly from the two previous years — 9.3% in 2018 and 9.7% in 2017 — but still among the lowest ever in Indiana; down from 12.2% a decade ago and less than half the 20% to 25% rate in Indiana during the 1980s."

That puts Indiana at a lower rate than other states.

"While once a major union state, Indiana now has unionization rates lower than the national average of 10.3% and lower than most of our neighboring states, with Michigan at 15%, Illinois at 14.7% and Ohio at 13.1%," Pollak said.

The decline in union membership could take a bigger toll on workers in Northwest Indiana, including those who don't belong to unions themselves, he said.

"As we sit on the precipice of a recession, one that will likely surpass the 2008 Great Recession in severity, unions play an important role in protecting jobs and the rights of workers," Pollak said. "This global pandemic has drawn attention to the working conditions of 'essential workers' in industries like retail, health care, social services, education and food service and how these workers often face low pay and limited benefits.

"Labor Day is an important time to reflect on how we treat workers, especially those that we consider 'essential,' and ask if the compensation and benefits we provide to them are consistent with what we ask and expect them to do."

Unions helped build up Northwest Indiana into the industrial powerhouse it is today, Pollak said. 

"At the turn of the 20th century, industrialists like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller led manufacturing companies to consolidate their power through corporations and trusts. Workers began to see working conditions and pay worsen and, in response, they organized through unions to offset the growing power of ‘big business,'" he said. "These unions are one of the reasons that Northwest Indiana grew into a thriving region that was home to many manufacturing jobs that were among the highest paying in the state and the nation."

Union wages in the Calumet Region have enriched small business owners and made Northwest Indiana a more prosperous place, largely by empowering consumers with more spending power, Pollak said.

"These high-paying jobs supported not only the individuals they directly employed but indirectly supported many other industries," he said. "In Northwest Indiana today, jobs in heavy industry and construction support sectors like retail, restaurants, entertainment and more. Without unions, we would have less employment and lower wages in Northwest Indiana. Unfortunately for many workers, while businesses continue to consolidate and become more concentrated, unionization rates have been declining."

Historically, unions helped elevate the quality of life in Northwest Indiana, elevating many steelworkers into the middle class, said Michael Olszanski, a lecturer in the IUN Department of Labor Studies.

"Steel built Northwest Indiana," he said. "The United Steelworkers of America, born in blood on Memorial Day, 1937, won a share of the profits of the big steel manufacturers and the respect of the bosses, for the workers of the Region and their families, including mine. The Steelworkers Organizing Committee, later the USWA, and its parent, the Congress of Industrial Organization, rose with the rising of rank-and-file workers who — with their own local leaders — did their own negotiating and shut down or slowed down their workplaces when necessary. At the very center of SWOC organizing was Local 1010 at the huge Inland Steel Indiana Harbor Works, now owned by ArcelorMittal, and its rank-and-file workers. 1010 was the largest, and most progressive Local in the USWA."

During the early labor organizing, three USW Local 1010 members — Earl Handley, Kenneth Reed and Sam Popovich — were shot during the Little Steel Strike outside Republic Steel in South Chicago during the Memorial Day Massacre in 1937. It was part of an ongoing struggle for workers to be treated fairly.

"Basic steel mills, including Inland, U.S. Steel Gary Works, Youngstown, Indiana Harbor and Bethlehem Burns Harbor employed tens of thousands of Region workers directly, and hundreds of thousands indirectly, for a hundred years. Our unions raised wages, improved working conditions, and brought prosperity to the Region. Most importantly, they made the bosses respect us and treat us with dignity," Olszanski said. "More recently, enormous productivity improvements in basic steel production have reduced the workforce to a mere one-fifth of it’s size in the 1970s, yet area mills produce just as much steel, much of it high-value specialty steel, and make huge profits, some for foreign corporations like ArcelorMittal. Workers, especially steelworkers, built Northwest Indiana, as they built their union."

Lynn Duggan, an associate professor in the Department of Labor Studies at Indiana University, said the unions have helped everyone trying to earn a living in Northwest Indiana and beyond.

"Unions have been found to reduce inequality, both through union-negotiated compensation and labor standards and also among nonunion workers through regional effects as well as in similar industries," she said. "A number of studies analyzing growing inequality in the U.S. have found declining union membership over time to be a significant factor contributing to inequality. Research has shown that nonunion wages are higher in industries with higher union density."

See an afternoon and evening through the eyes of Crown Point Police Patrolman Daniel Lee. Interview by Mary Freda. Video by Kale Wilk. Produced by Nat Cardona.

"Labor Day is an important time to reflect on how we treat workers, especially those that we consider 'essential,' and ask if the compensation and benefits we provide to them are consistent with what we ask and expect them to do."

Micah Pollak, assistant professor of economics, Indiana University Northwest


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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.

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