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AFL-CIO may alter membership rules to stem loss of unionists

The AFL-CIO, concerned about a continuing drop in union rolls, this month will consider proposals to restructure its membership requirements. A top-level committee of union officials is expected to report to the midwinter meetings of the AFL-CIO's executive council on ways to reverse sharp declines in union membership -- and potentially in union influence.

Some members of the executive council, which meets in Bal Harbour, Fla., Feb. 18, want organizing expanded with more cooperation between unions. According to John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, there are proposals that the federation seek ``much-needed revitalization'' through structural changes that would open ``associate memberships'' to workers who would otherwise be ineligible.

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Figures, based on a survey by the US Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), show that union membership dropped from 23 percent of wage and salary workers in 1980 to 18.8 percent last year. The figures came as no surprise to the AFL-CIO but only confirmed the bad news that unions have been reporting.

Murray Seeger, the AFL-CIO's director of information, pointed out that while only 18.8 percent of workers were union members in 1984, BLS data showed that 21.6 percent were covered by union contracts. And earnings of unionists or those covered by contracts were 33 percent higher than those of nonunionists, he noted.

But the drop in membership must still be considered a major problem for labor. The appeal of unions to wage and salaried workers has dropped, along with the percentage holding union cards (and paying union dues). Organizing campaigns are harder to win. There has been an erosion of strength on the job and at bargaining tables, with lower settlements and unfruitful strikes. Politically, unions are still powerful but are delivering fewer votes.

The BLS survey, the first since 1980 when they were suspended in a government budget cutback, showed:

Employment in the private and public sectors rose 5.4 percent from 1980 to '84, but total union membership dropped by 13.7 percent.

Membership dropped from 30.5 percent to 24 percent in the goods-producing sector, which includes manufacturing. Union membership plummeted by 22.8 percent in the blue-collar unions, long the heart of labor.

In the service sector, employment went up 12.4 percent, but union membership dropped 12.7 percent, to 10.5 percent overall, down from 13.5 percent in 1980.

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Union membership held steady in the government sector.

According to the BLS, 23 percent of working men belonged to unions in 1984, compared with 28.4 percent in 1980. Among women workers, 13.8 percent held union cards in 1984, a drop from 15.9 percent four years earlier.

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