Running counter to a national drop in membership, Maine experienced a slight increase last year in the number of workers belonging to organized labor unions.
The percentage of Maine workers in a union increased from 11.3 percent in 2011 to 11.5 percent in 2012, according to data released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.
Nationally, the percent of workers belonging to labor unions dropped from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012, the lowest percentage in 76 years, according to Reuters.
Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, which represents nearly 30,000 Maine workers spread across roughly 160 local unions, said the uptick is encouraging, but he doesn’t think it signals a “groundswell trend” toward increased union membership.
“I think the fact it grew slightly indicates working people continue to see organizing and unions as essential to building a brighter future and stronger voice on the job,” he said.
According to BLS data, about 64,000 Maine workers belonged to unions in 2012.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the data on union membership come from the same monthly survey data used to track unemployment and other labor statistics, according to Glenn Mills, chief economist for the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.
Mills said the Current Population Survey, which is conducted monthly by the Census Bureau from a sample of 60,000 eligible households, is notoriously volatile in the short term.
With that in mind, a change of two-tenths of 1 percent isn’t really meaningful, Mills said.
“From a statistical point of view, it’s basically no change,” he said. “It’s an estimate, [and] with the confidence intervals around it, it’s essentially no change.”
However, the numbers are useful at showing long-term trends, Mills said.
According to the BLS data, Maine’s union membership during the previous dozen years has been falling. The percentage of Maine workers belonging to unions fell from 13.8 percent in 2000 to 12.8 percent in 2003 to 12.3 in 2008.
That decline is not surprising, Mills said, as industries with traditionally large numbers of union workers — such as papermaking, shipbuilding and other manufacturing sectors — have shed jobs.
Jeff Young, a labor lawyer with McTeague Higbee in Topsham, said he would want to see the numbers increase for a few more years before drawing any conclusions about unions making a comeback in Maine, but the most recent data are encouraging, he said, and could reflect the added effort he has seen in the state to support organized labor.
“I think the unions here in Maine have recognized that if you don’t organize, you perish,” he said. “So there has been a renewed commitment in recent years to organizing.”