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Virginia union membership dips to lowest rate since 1992

Mar 16, 2:21 PM EDT


NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) -- Union membership in Virginia has fallen sharply and is at its lowest rate since the U.S. Labor Department started tracking that statistic in 1989.

Unions in Virginia had a high membership of 247,000 out of 2.7 million workers in 1992, a membership rate of 9.3 percent. But by last year, unions had only 139,000 members, or 4 percent, as the work force grew to 3.4 million people, the labor department reported recently.

Virginia's numbers rank the state 48th among the 50 states in terms of union participation, just above South Carolina and North Carolina.

Union participation in Virginia was only a third of the national union membership rates that are themselves only an inkling of what they once were.

Union membership was 12 percent nationwide in 2006, down from 20 percent in 1983. The national rate had ranked at more than a quarter of the work force in the 1950s.

The heaviest union participation in 2006 was in Hawaii and New York; both have about 25 percent of their work force as union members.

Organized labor and union membership rates are strongest in "union shop" states, many of them in the Northeast, Midwest and West. Those states allow companies and unions to sign agreements in which workers must become union members and pay union dues as a condition of employment.

Virginia is an "open-shop" state, in which such agreements are illegal and union membership is always optional. Nonunion members don't have to pay union dues, even though the union still has to represent them. Unions typically are weakest in states with these laws, also called "right to work" rules.

Unions are losing members because they no longer are adequately representing workers, contends Wayne De Berry, a grievance committee member in the United Steelworkers union, which represents about 8,500 workers at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard.

"We, as a labor movement, have failed the work force," he said.

De Berry said unions don't keep members informed on key union issues and the importance of unions. He also said local union leaders often kowtow to their national union headquarters at the expense of their own members.