Minnesota gained 46,000 union members last year, reversing decade-long decline

Working people’s voice grew stronger last year in Minnesota, where organizing gains pushed union membership to its highest point since 2004, according to federal data released today.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual report on union membership shows Minnesota gained 46,000 union members from 2016 to 2017, the largest year-to-year gain since 2000. The state’s union population, 411,000, was at its highest since 2004.

Union members grew as a share of Minnesota’s total workforce as well. Union density increased from 14.2 percent to 15.2 percent in 2017, its highest point since 2010.

The report shows Minnesota unions are reversing a trend of decline that began over a decade ago.

“These numbers show that despite political threats from Washington, more working Minnesotans are exercising their freedom to join together in unions to negotiate for a better life,” said Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy, president of the state’s largest labor federation.

Driving the uptick in union membership are organizing gains Minnesota unions have made recently on several fronts, including the service sector, retail and higher education. Some highlights include:

• More than 500 retail janitors, after a six-year campaign with the Twin Cities worker center CTUL, won their first union contract last February.

• Retail workers at three Minneapolis co-ops – Seward, Eastside and Linden Hills – voted to unionize in 2017, as did workers at Whole Foods Co-Op in Duluth.

• The Mayo Clinic’s move to outsource food-service work in 2016 sparked a flurry of organizing activity in Rochester. Some 250 workers have formed four separate bargaining units with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, which went from representing about 50 percent of Mayo’s food service staff to representing all of them.

• Adjunct faculty members at colleges and universities nationwide are forming unions to push back against a higher-ed model they consider unsustainable. In Minnesota, SEIU Local 284 helped adjunct faculty at Augsburg and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design organize in late 2016.

The BLS report also reflects renewed emphasis Minnesota’s public sector unions are putting on membership. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to rule so-called “fair share” fees unconstitutional later this year, teachers and other public-service workers are scrambling to shore up support among their co-workers.

AFSCME Council 5, which represents over 40,000 public-service workers statewide, converted thousands of “fee payers” into full-fledged members last year, on top of organizing new units at seven different employers, bringing 225 new members into the fold.

Of course, an increase in union power isn’t just good for union members. “It’s no coincidence that as union membership increased in 2017, so did Minnesotans’ average wages,” McCarthy said. “Union workers set standards for wages and safety that benefit all working people.”

Nationally, the number of union members rose by 260,000 to 14.8 million. Union density remained unchanged at 10.7 percent.

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