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AFL-CIO delegates cheer for President Barack Obama at an AFL-CIO convention. (Photo Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Although labor union membership has declined significantly in the United States over the last 50 years, there is a segment of the labor market that is showing remarkable signs of increased union activity. Contrary to conventional wisdom, professionals and white-collar workers are joining labor unions in record numbers. According to independent labor writer, Cynthia Green, white collar workers are one of the fastest growing among the rank in the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO is attributing this growth in recruits from the professional ranks primarily to the reduction of the manufacturing sector in the United States. But the economic downturn is also forcing more professional, technical and administrative support workers to look for new ways to build power.

In a study conducted by the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees (DPE) it was determined that white-collar union recruits is outpacing all other occupational groups, including the building and construction, hospitality and service sectors. Explaining this surge in professional membership, the DPE reported:

"The movement is no longer just an economic safe haven for the blue collar and service workers that once dominated the institution. It is, more and more, the destination of choice for professional workers seeking fairness, equity and a voice on the job."

In a report the DPE entitled, "Rising Tide: Professionals: The New Face of America's Unions", the authors noted that even though professionals have sought union protections for more than a century, the accelerated numbers of recent years appear to be driven by the dominance of multinational corporations and health maintenance organizations as employers, where workers have fewer possibilities "to exercise independent judgment."

The AFL-CIO's Department for Professional Employees is dedicated entirely to assisting affiliated unions who are working on behalf of professional and technical workers. This Department is comprised of a coalition of 21 national unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO which represent over four million skilled professional and technical workers.

According to the federation, the professional and technical workers in organized labor now represents the majority of its 9 million members. Hundreds of disciplines and occupations are included in this representation. Sectors such as science and engineering, technology, healthcare, education, public administration, journalism, entertainment and the arts all fall under the AFL-CIO structure which was chartered by the Federation in 1977 in recognition of the increase in professional and technical employees among union members.

DPE affiliates such as the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers and the Office and Professional Employees International Union are providing a much needed source of support particularly during these difficult economic times. These unions are seeing their numbers swell as more professionals turn to them to protect the interests.

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The following highlights were excerpted from DFP's Vital Workforce Statistics FAQ.

White-collar workers are a broad grouping of occupations of workers preforming nonmanual labor, typically working in offices and other non-production phases of industry. The education required and/or salaried job entails mental or clerical work; typical occupations fall under professional, managerial, sales coordination or administrative positions. As of 2009, 10.9% of white-collar workers (sales, office, management, professional, and other related occupations) are members of unions (about 8.3 million people) and 12.3% (over 9.3 million white-collar workers) are represented by unions.

    • In 2009, white-collar workers accounted for 53.9% of all union workers.
    • In 2009, 4.8% of all management, business, financial operations, and related occupations workers were members of unions (822,000 workers).12 Of the total number of sales, office, administrative support, and related occupations workers, 7.2% are union members (over 2.2 million workers).
    • As of 2009, there are more union members among professionals than any other occupational group, making up 39.3% of all union members (not including management, business, sales, and office workers). These professionals are broken down into the following sub-groupings of occupations:

    1. Computer and mathematical occupations: 5.3% of total workers in this field are union members (175,000 workers);
    2. Architecture and engineering occupations: 7.7% of total workers in this field are union members (194,000 workers);
    3. Life, physical, and social science occupations: 10% of total workers in this field are union members (122,000 workers);
    4. Community and social services occupations: 16.1% of total workers in this field are union members (366,000 workers);
    5. Legal occupations: 5.9% of total workers in this field are union members (79,000 workers);
    6. Education, training, and library occupations: 38.1% of total workers in this field are union members (over 3.17 million workers);
    7. Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations: 7.4% of total workers in this field are union members (136,000 workers); and
    8. Healthcare practitioner and technical occupations: 13.6% of total workers in this field are union members (962,000 workers).

      • In 2009, over 5.2 million professional and related occupations workers were union members; over 5.8 million were represented by unions (not including management, business, sales, and office workers).
      • Of the total number of these professionals, 20.9% had union representation (18.7% actual members of a union), while among the entire workforce, only 12.3% had union representation.
      • Significant numbers of office and administrative support workers are represented by unions: over 1.8 million, or 10.3% of all such workers.
      • Women comprised 44.8% of the labor movement in 2009, up from 19% in 1962.
      • Women, and especially women of color, are forming and joining unions at a faster rate than men. Many of the unions organizing in industries dominated by women, such as education and government, have consistently shown much higher win rates than those unions organizing in industries with fewer women members.20
      • The economic recession is having a large impact on the ability to find sustaining work. The number of non-agricultural workers not working a full work week for economic reasons, which include slack work or unfavorable business conditions, furloughs, inability to find full-time work, or seasonal declines in demand rose between March 2009 and March 2010.

      The excerpt is provided as an enticement to go to the Department for Professional Employees Fact Sheets which are well researched and well sourced including footnotes. Please check the links provided throughout this article for more information on how to become active in the labor movement.

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      Sharon Kyle

      Sharon Kyle