The world’s media outlets were virtually unanimous in their assessments of the failed attempt of the United Auto Workers to unionize employees at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Reuters called it “a stinging defeat” for a years-long campaign “which had been seen as organized labor’s best chance to expand in the U.S. South.”
It was a stinging defeat all right, but organized labor’s best chance to expand in the U.S. South is actually the only place it has expanded anywhere for the past 50 years: government.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a much-cited annual report on union membership based on the Current Population Survey, but it takes Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University to present the disaggregated data on their web site unionstats.com. I am chagrined to admit I did not know the site existed until tipped by Stan Greer of the National Institute for Labor Relations Research. It is a treasure trove of information that I will be culling for weeks, but I will start with a comparison of the membership numbers for public employee unions (PEUs) in each of the 50 states and DC in 2013 and 2008.
I have posted a simple table on the EIA web site. Examining statistics for public employee unions alone yields interesting results. Cumulatively, PEUs lost 8 percent of their members in the last five years. Thirty-six states suffered losses.
PEUs in 14 states and DC experienced growth in the aftermath of the recession. Seven of them grew by 15 percent or more. Six of the seven high-growth areas are in Southern states.
The list is headed by Georgia, where government unions grew by more 36 percent between 2008 and 2013. Virginia followed with 31.9% PEU growth. And though Tennessee is now seen as an anti-union enclave because of the UAW vote, government unions grew 27.4% there in the past five years. Kentucky (22.1%), Oklahoma (19.8%) and Texas (15%) round out the list. In the North, only Vermont (16.7%) was able to crack this group.
To be sure, the South still is not uniformly friendly to public sector unions. The largest declines in government union membership occurred in Mississippi (-53%) and Arkansas (-42.5%).
But if unions want to stave off total disintegration, they would do well to concentrate their efforts on the one sector of the U.S. economy that operates without market competition or ordinary limits on workforce growth. That is as true in the South as it was in the Northeast and Midwest.