Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday May 18th, 2015, 6:24pm

Study: Illinois Union Membership Down 97,000 Workers Over Past Decade

Organized labor's power and effectiveness is still significant in Illinois despite unions having 97,000 fewer members in the state than a decade ago, local economic and labor experts argue in a new report.

"The labor movement's presence is still keenly felt in Illinois," said Frank Manzo with the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, which jointly released the "State of the Unions 2015" report with researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago. 

"Unions continue to increase incomes across the state and advance a strong, middle-class economy," he added.

Last year, Illinois' unionization rate was 15.09 percent, a nearly 11 percent decrease from 2005, according to the report.

At the national level, the 2014 unionization rate was 11.08 percent. Since 2005, union membership has declined by 1.12 million workers nationwide.

In Illinois and nationally, "declining union membership has primarily been the result of decreases in male unionization, Latino and Latina unionization, and private sector unionization," the report reads.

Back in 2005, Illinois was home to over 926,800 union workers. In 2014, the state's union membership figure was nearly 829,800. That's up from a 2012 low of about 800,400 Illinois union workers and a state unionization rate of 14.58 percent.

Still, union membership in Illinois was down last year compared to 2013, when there were nearly 850,600 union workers and the unionization rate was 15.74 percent.

Nonetheless, report co-author and University of Illinois labor professor Robert Bruno said the 2014 unionization figures suggest that Illinois is "still a vibrant state" in which to organize and be a union member.

"It does demonstrate that [in] Illinois, as the economy improves, there are more opportunities to organize, and it's a preferred option for workers in this state and isn't really seen by most employers as being an illegitimate exercise," Bruno said.

Unionization is important, Bruno explained, because it lifts up wages and working standards for workers, thereby "enabl(ing) Illinois to be this sort of high-road economy where it pays to work."

Union members also help the state's economy, Bruno noted.

"Because we've got such a significant number of unions members, the economy is stimulated by their discretionary spending," he said.

Among other notable findings from the report, 54 percent of Illinois public sector workers are unionized, compared to 9 percent of private sector workers.

Additionally, master's degree holders are the most unionized educational group both in Illinois and nationwide. They also represent nearly 17 percent of the state's unionized workforce, compared to 8.8 percent of the non-unionized workforce.

"I think it's often misunderstood just how well-educated this workforce is," Bruno said of union members. "That would alone help to substantiate why these workers are worth the incomes their unions bargain for."

Organized labor in Illinois has come under attack from new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is going after union "fair share" fees and pushing for right-to-work zones in the state.

Rather than proposing a statewide right-to-work law, Rauner wants to let local Illinois communities enact their own right-to-work policies as part of his pro-business "Turnaround Agenda" for the state. Right-to-work policies generally look to eliminate the requirement that workers pay union dues or fees when they take a job covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Rauner claims that the zones would boost employment and the state's economy.

Last week, the Illinois House voted down Rauner's right-to-work proposal, which could decrease union membership in the state by as many as 200,000 workers, according to the labor and economic experts.

"If the rules of the labor market were to be radically changed, then the ability of the unions to lift the economy up and protect those workers would certainly be weakened, and it would do some substantial economic damage," Bruno said of the policy threats against Illinois unions.

According to the report, organized labor's response to the various challenges it faces -- including "political pressures to weaken unions" and what will likely be further long-term declines in union membership rates -- could "define its influence and effectiveness in the decades to come."

"There are clearly some threats" to unions, Bruno said, "and how successful labor is in defeating those threats, it will be important to whether or not they can continue to play a really positive role for working people in the state."

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