In this July 25, 2020, file photo striking Bath Iron Works shipbuilders march in solidarity in Bath. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s unions added thousands to their ranks in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the state’s economy.

But that growth can be partly attributed to the decimation the pandemic wreaked in the state’s workforce.

Nearly 13,000 Mainers joined a union in 2020, bringing union membership to 82,000, compared with 69,000 in 2019, according to data the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday. That means 14.7 percent of the state’s workforce belongs to a union, the highest level than at any point in the past 20 years.

It’s not just union ranks that grew. The number of Mainers represented by a union rose 12,000 to 93,000. That means 16.7 percent of Mainers have a union negotiating on their behalf, data show.

“More and more Maine workers are organizing and fighting for better wages, working conditions, safety on the job and democracy in the workplace,” Cynthia Phinney, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, said Tuesday. “The pandemic has reminded all of us that working people are essential. The best way for essential workers to have safe workplaces, respect at work and good jobs is by joining together with coworkers in a union.”

But as Maine saw union membership grow in 2020, nationally unions shedded 321,000 members, with 14.3 million enrolled. Despite that, the percentage of the national workforce enrolled in a union actually grew 0.5 percentage points to 10.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s because millions of Americans lost their jobs last year as the coronavirus pandemic wrought havoc in the U.S. economy, grinding it to a halt in the spring when many states — including Maine — issued stay-at-home orders and placed restrictions on businesses to slow virus transmission.

Maine’s growth in union representation can be partly attributed to that loss. The state’s workforce fell to 559,000 in 2020, down from 588,000 the year before. That’s a 5 percent drop.

Even as the state’s economic recovery has outpaced the national average — Maine is currently at 86 percent of its pre-pandemic economic capacity, compared with 82 percent nationally, according to the Back-to-Normal index compiled by CNN and Moody’s Analytics — Maine has seen anemic job growth in recent months, adding only 400 jobs in December.

The Maine AFL-CIO acknowledged in a Tuesday statement that part of the growth in union representation is attributable to “significant” job losses in non-unionized sectors. But the labor group also cited increased union organizing and hiring of essential workers in already-unionized sectors.

The growth in union membership does represent — for the moment, at least — a reversal in a decades-long wane in union power in the Pine Tree State. In 2000, 13.8 percent of the state’s workforce belonged to a union. By 2015, that had fallen to 11.6 percent, with the losses most heavily felt in the private sector. The public sector continues to be more heavily unionized, both in Maine and nationally, with about 33.6 percent of public sector workers enrolled in a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That decline has mirrored the national fall in union membership, which peaked at 34.8 percent in 1954, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In Maine, the decline has been the result of a long-term shift in the state’s economy from traditionally unionized industries, particularly in manufacturing, to one more reliant on retail and tourism. In 1960, 1 in 3 jobs in Maine were in manufacturing; today that figure is 1 in 12.

That decline in unionism has been cited as a reason for the growing wealth gap in the United States.

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute estimates that weekly wages for men not enrolled in a union would be $52 higher today if union representation had remained at its 1979 level. That’s $2,074 a year. For women, that would mean a $13.80 increase in weekly wages, or $745 a year.

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