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Union membership grew in Indiana, Illinois last year

USW union members march from downtown Gary to U.S. Steel Gary Works in a protest in Gary in August. Union membership grew in the state last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Union membership has been trending downward nationally, but union ranks grew in Indiana last year because of the thriving automotive and construction sectors.

Indiana had 304,000 union members in 2016, a 6.9 percent increase over the 283,000 members the state had in 2015, according to newly released U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. It's the third time in four years that labor union participation rose in Indiana after the state legislature passed a right-to-work law in 2012, an upward trend that's surprised many who thought the law would have the opposite effect.

"In Indiana there has been a clear rise in unionization rates since 2012," Indiana University Northwest Assistant Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said. 

About 10.4 percent of Indiana's workforce was composed of dues-paying union members in 2016, up from 10 percent in 2015.  An estimated 335,000 workers – or 11.4 percent of the workforce – were represented by unions whether they pay dues or not, up from the 319,000 Hoosier workers who were represented by unions in 2015.

Indiana University Bloomington Labor Studies Professor Joseph Varga said unions have retained members despite those members having the option of opting out of dues under the right-to-work law.

"One factor is the diligent work of the unions in Indiana in maintaining their membership in spite of the implementation of right-to-work, which did not effect most contracts until recently," Varga said. "Second, Indiana and Illinois have both experienced good increases in union hiring in the construction trades, which are heavily unionized. The slight increases in hiring in the auto industry may have helped as well, increasing UAW membership at Big Three plants."

Union workers earn 25 percent more than non-union workers, and the rise in union workers could be related to stagnant incomes, Pollak said.

"One possibility is the lack of a strong economic recovery for the middle class," he said. "Unionization rates are generally counter-cyclical. Union membership generally decreases when the economy is improving and increases when the economy declines." 

Nationally, the number of union members fell to 14.5 million in 2016, down from 14.7 million in 2015. Union workers accounted for 10.7 percent of the U.S. workforce, down from 11.1 percent the previous year.

Union membership has been on the decline in the United States for decades, Pollak said. In the late 1970s the percent of workers that were union members was about 25 percent.

Union membership also declined in Illinois last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions had 812,000 members, or 14.5 percent of the workforce in 2016, down from 847,000 members, or 15.2 percent of the workforce in 2015.

"This recent decline in Illinois is likely related to continuing budget issues and challenges the education sector is facing there, as teachers are one of the occupations with the highest unionization rates," Pollak said.

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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.