Union membership jumped to 12.4 percent of the nation's work force last year, amid widespread job losses and credit woes.
The ranks of organized labor rose by 428,000 workers in 2008, the biggest annual gain since the government began compiling such data in 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this week.
It's also the second year in a row that unions have added to their ranks. Membership increased by 311,000 in 2007, to account for 12.1 percent of workers.
Overall, union membership remains well below the peak of 35 percent during labor's heyday of the 1950s. Membership was about 20 percent in 1983, the first year the bureau began compiling the numbers.
Unions have moved aggressively to bolster organizing efforts in recent years, a move that apparently offset the loss of 2.6 million jobs from payrolls in 2008. The Teamsters Union, one of the nation's largest unions, had its most successful organizing year in decades, with more than 43,000 workers joining.
Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said the figures show the steady decline in union membership might have bottomed out. “I think the unions are still vulnerable,” Chaison said. “It's almost as if they've settled down, but there really hasn't been any major growth spurt yet.”
Public sector unions accounted for most of the increase last year. The union membership rate for government workers rose to 36.8 percent from 35.9 percent in 2007. In the private sector, membership remained steady as union ranks inched up to 7.6 percent from 7.5 percent in 2007.
Unions are hopeful they could experience more of a resurgence if Congress passes legislation this year making it easier for workers to organize unions. The Employee Free Choice Act would give workers the option of forming a union by simply signing a card or petition instead of holding secret ballot elections.
The bill passed the House in 2007, but did not survive a Republican filibuster in the Senate. With Democrats expanding their majority in the Senate, union leaders say they are close to securing the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Businesses are mobilizing fierce opposition, arguing that without secret ballot elections, workers will be open to union bullying tactics.
Chaison cautioned that Wednesday's data could fuel arguments against the card check bill.
“It will be difficult for unions to claim that they can't organize enough to offset declining employment because they've managed to do it over the last two years,” Chaison said.
Business groups, already reeling from the economic crisis, claim passage of the card check bill will put many of their members out of business.
Keith Smith, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said the numbers “reinforce to us that the system is working” and show unions have exaggerated the need for labor law revision.
But union advocates note that only a fraction of new members last year came from newly formed unions, while the vast majority were already in unionized workplaces.
Stewart Acuff, special assistant to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, said the 428,000 new members last year is just a small portion of what unions could recruit if the card check bill passes. He cited union surveys showing nearly 60 million people would join a union “if there was no fear and intimidation.”