Are unions poised for a comeback?

Long-declining union membership leveled off last year at 12.5
percent of the work force, the Labor Department said Friday in a report
labor leaders called encouraging.

Union membership was about a
third of the work force a half-century ago, and was one in five, 20
percent, in 1983, when the Labor Department started keeping such data.

department said 15.7 million workers were union members in 2005. Blacks
were more likely than whites, Hispanics or Asian workers to be members
of a union. Men were more likely than women to be in unions and those
in the public sector were four times as likely as those in the private
sector to be in unions.

Full-time workers who were union members
had median weekly earnings of $801, compared with a median weekly
income of $622 for workers who were not in unions.

“The good news
is that the annual hemorrhaging of union membership slowed last year,”
said Teamsters’ President James P. Hoffa. “And that’s not really good
news. A worker’s right to join a union has been continually eroded by a
corporate takeover of our government.”

The difficulties facing
labor contributed to a split between the AFL-CIO, an umbrella
federation of more than 50 unions, and about a half dozen unions
including the Teamsters, who wanted to focus more resources on building

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney cited the leveling off of union membership as good news for a movement that has faced troubles.

a political climate that’s hostile to worker’s rights,” Sweeney said,
“these numbers illustrate the extraordinary will of workers to gain a
voice on the job despite enormous obstacles.”