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Union membership hit hard in past year

NEW YORK — The percentage of US workers in labor unions took an unusually large fall in 2012, dropping to 11.3 percent last year from 11.8 percent in 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Wednesday.

The total number of union members also took an unusually big drop, by 400,000, to 14.366 million, even though overall US employment rose by 2.4 million last year, the bureau said. From 2010 to 2011, the number grew by 50,000, and the percent unionized fell only 0.1 percentage point.

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The declines came during a period when labor unions have been on the defensive. Wisconsin enacted a law in 2011 that curbed the collective bargaining rights of most of the state’s government employees, while Indiana and Michigan passed ‘‘right to work’’ laws last year that are likely to encourage more private-sector workers to drop their union membership so they do not have to pay union dues or fees.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said union membership for private-sector workers dropped to 6.6 last year, from 6.9 percent in 2011, a drop that has caused some labor leaders to fear that unions were steadily fading into irrelevance for many large employers.

The bureau said union membership among public-sector employees fell to 35.9 percent in 2012, from 37 percent the previous year, and there were more union members in the public sector — 7.3 million — than in the private sector, 7 million.

The number of union members is down from 17.7 million in 1983, the first year for which comparable numbers are available, when 20.1 percent of the nation’s workers belonged to labor unions.

In recent months, however, there has been an uptick in union activity among nonunion workers, as evidenced by labor protests at Walmart stores across the nation and a one-day strike by fast-food workers in New York City in November.

The number of union members fell 400,000, to 14.366 million, though overall US employment rose by 2.4 million.

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In those job actions, the workers were protesting what they said were low wages and meager benefits. But union officials acknowledge that it is often hard, in the face of intense employer resistance and employee fears of layoffs, to persuade a majority of workers at a big-box store or other workplaces to vote to unionize.

Richard L. Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s main union federation, responded to the labor report in a statement, saying, ‘‘Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one, as today’s figures on union membership demonstrate.’’

Among states, North Carolina had the lowest unionization rate, 2.9 percent, the BLS report said, followed by Arkansas at 3.2 percent, and South Carolina at 3.3 percent. New York had the highest rate, 23.2 percent, followed by Alaska at 22.4 percent, and Hawaii at 21.6 percent.

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