SID SALTER: Except as donors, unions irrelevant

By Sid Salter

Combative emails and phone calls trailed – as they almost always do when I write on that topic – my most recent column on the pursuit of a union vote at Nissan’s auto manufacturing plant by the United Auto Workers.
Pro-union critics made their usual protestations about the historic good the unions did in getting rid of child labor sweat shops, unsafe working conditions, and winning the 40-hour work week. But in point of fact, those are not serious issues in the current dispute over the UAW’s attempt to infiltrate foreign-owned auto plants in the South.
In considering the UAW’s position, it’s apparent that the declining political relevance of organized labor when one gets past contest Democratic Party primaries has made any expansion of the footprint of the unions difficult if not impossible.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, only some 48,000 Mississippians or 4.3 percent of Mississippi workers are members of labor unions with another 64,000 or 5.7 percent of the state’s workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union or an employee association contract.
In 2012, the BLS reported that 19 states had union membership rates above the U.S. average, of which 9 had rates above 15 percent. Of the nine states with the highest rates, three were located in the Northeast, one in the Midwest, and the remaining five were in the West.
In addition, the BLS confirms that 31 states and the District of Columbia had union membership rates below the national average of 11.3 percent in 2012. Eight of these states had union membership rates below 5 percent, with North Carolina having the lowest, 2.9 percent. The next lowest rates were recorded in Arkansas (3.2 percent), South Carolina (3.3 percent), and Mississippi (4.3 percent).
About half of the 14.4 million union members in the U.S. lived in just seven states (California, 2.5 million; New York, 1.8 million; Illinois, 800,000; Pennsylvania, 700,000; and Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, (600,000 each).
Where unions still do matter politically in Mississippi is in the campaign coffers of candidates who are almost exclusively Democrats – but even that influence is declining with the erosion of union membership. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, labor unions contributed $442,550 to statewide and state legislative races in Mississippi in 2003. That number dropped to $260,636 in the 2007 elections and dropped again to $207,005 in the 2011 elections.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that since 1989, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson has received $2.01 million from organized labor with $93,000 of that total coming from the UAW. Thompson, an unabashed pro-labor Democrat.
Thompson supported organized labor before he rose to Congress, so the campaign contributions they give him seem neither surprising nor sinister. But few if any Mississippi politicians have benefited more from union support.
Politically safe in his district, Thompson is free to embrace the unions without penalty on Election Day. That’s not a status any of the state’s three Republican members of Congress can claim and their voting records bear that out. Those numbers don’t bode well for the UAW’s efforts.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.