GRAND FORKS – Union membership has been on the decline for decades, but union leaders in North Dakota are optimistic about the future of workers groups as numbers stabilize.

“We’re at a point where we can’t lose more,” said Waylon Hedegaard, president and secretary-treasurer of the North Dakota AFL-CIO.

There were about 14.6 million union members, or 10.7 percent of the workforce, in 2016 across the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics That’s a drop of about 240,000 from 2015, or a rate decrease of one-half percent. That’s also 2.9 million fewer than in 1983, when the rate of membership was 20.1 percent.

North Dakota has a lower concentration of union members than most of the country with 5.5 percent and roughly 20,000 members, according to the BLS. That’s much lower than Minnesota’s rate of 14.2 percent, or about 365,000 members.

The decline in Minnesota and North Dakota has been slower than across the country. Union membership in North Dakota went from a workforce rate of 14.4 percent in 1989 to 7 percent last year, a figure that has remained constant in the last three years.

Minnesota went from a unionization rate of 21.4 percent in 1989 to 15.2 percent in 2016, a percentage that has been relatively unchanged since 2009.

“Our numbers have been consistent,” said John Riskey, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union in Grand Forks.

The union represents workers for American Crystal Sugar Co., which locked out 1,300 employees from Aug. 1, 2011, to late May 2013.

Roughly 400 union workers returned to the company. About half of the shut-out workers had retired or formally quit during the nearly two-year lockout.

“We did have our numbers drop off during the lockout, but we are back up to where we were before,” Riskey said, adding there are 1,100 members with his local.

Decline in numbers

There is a wide range of answers as to why union membership has declined over the decades in the U.S., said Aaron Sojourner, a University of Minnesota professor who is an authority on labor economics. Globalization, the decline in manufacturing jobs, moving production to other parts of the world and machines replacing workers all played a role. Unions and workers tend to have less power than they had in the past, he said.

“Management has gotten more aggressive, often fighting back against unionization efforts,” Sojourner said. “There aren’t always strong enforcement protections of workers’ rights.

Riskey agreed politics plays a role in the decline of unions, adding companies try to tell employees unions aren’t needed in the workplace.

“They are trying to combat (unions), saying things are OK and (workers) should be happy with what they have where they work,” he said.

Another sharp drop across the country came during the recession of the late 2000s. Minnesota and the U.S. saw a decline in union membership rate from 2008 to 2009, but North Dakota saw its percentages climb in that time.

“I think North Dakota is special because of the energy boom and because it created uniquely strong demand for labor by people with less formal education,” Sojourner said. “Everywhere else in the country, workers with that profile have been suffering from very diminished demand, falling wages, falling workforce participation and falling workforce protection.”

Public sector on the rise

Not all unions have seen losses.

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The private sector had about 7.4 million union members in 2016 across the country, down about 200,000 from 2015, according to the BLS. Union members made up about 6.4 percent of workers in the private sector in 2016, and membership has dropped almost 5 million since 1983.

But the public sector has seen an overall rise in union membership in the last three decades, with governmental entities employing 7.1 million union members in 2016, or 34.4 percent of the workers in the public sector, according to the BLS. Though down about 100,000 from 2015, last year’s membership was almost five times the amount of 1983’s.

The rate of union membership has continuously been the highest in local government across the U.S., hovering just above 40 percent since 1995.

Grand Forks Education Association President Tom Young said he has noticed rising numbers in teachers unions across the country and in North Dakota. The GFEA has about 500 members, a number that has grown “modestly” in the last few years, Young said.

“The teachers are joining because they see it as a really strong and powerful way to collectively address conditions that better allow them to serve the people they serve,” he said.

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Membership in other unrelated organizations -- churches, rotary clubs, etc. -- also are declining, he noted, adding there may be a cultural shift.

“You see church rosters shrinking,” he said. “You see civic organizations … their membership is shrinking as well.”

Future of unions

Jason Ehlert, president of the North Dakota Building Trades Unions, is confident union numbers will come up, noting a rise in apprenticeships, higher wages, a potential uptick in construction projects and an increased demand for trade and skill jobs.

Traditionally, the median weekly earnings are higher for union workers, with nonunion workers making about 80 percent of their union co-workers’ wages, according to more than three decades of BLS statistics ending in 2015.

“I think without a union presence there, it’s very likely that teachers might be in a tougher financial situation now,” Young said, referring to an impasse that stalled teacher salary negotiations earlier this year in Grand Forks. “That’s a huge function in trying to maintain teacher salaries and benefits.”

Ehlert acknowledged unions may carry negative connotations with some, but he felt opinions were changing as unions work to engage and educate the public.

“We have to change the opinion of unions in this state, but we also have to change the opinion of working in trade,” he said.

Sojourner was hesitant to predict what the numbers would do, though he said it’s hard to see them going down much further. Jobs are shifting toward the service and care sectors, while construction jobs tend to be cyclical and manufacturing has a history of decline.

They will have to tap the generation of workers born in the late 1980s and early 1990s as baby boomers retire.

“There is a lot of talk about these types of jobs,” he said of trade and skill jobs. “I think if there is going to be growth and vitality, it is going to look different from than it has in the past and is going to require adaptation and change.”

Hedegaard said he felt young workers are open to unions.

“People, especially young people, are starting to think unions are the way out again,” he said. “We were on the decline, but I think we are on the rise again.”

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April Baumgarten is a business and political journalist for the Herald. Contact her at (701) 780-1248 or abaumgarten@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @aprilbaumsaway.