WASHINGTON – Union membership in Maryland dropped by 82,000 people from 2003 to 2004, a reflection of the continuing “demise of the industrial base” in the state, said labor and business officials.
The U.S. Department of Labor said in late January that union membership in Maryland fell from an estimated 354,000 to 272,000, while the share of state workers who were union members fell from 14.3 percent of the work force to 10.9 percent.
The state’s falling numbers reflect a national trend, said a University of Maryland professor who specializes in labor issues.
“Nationwide, sectors in which unions have been stronger are losing jobs for various reasons,” said Fred Feinstein, a visiting professor at the university’s School of Public Policy. “We’ve heard about outsourcing and globalization and companies moving overseas to take advantage of lower wages.”
But a business representative cited technological progress, not outsourcing, for the loss of manufacturing jobs in Maryland and the nation.
“It takes fewer people to do what needs to be done worldwide,” said Robert O.C. Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government. Manufacturing industries experience “an inevitable increase in productivity” that replaces labor-intensive tasks with automaton, he said.
Maryland’s work force grew from 2,481,000 to 2,502,000 between 2003 and 2004, according to federal labor data. But state employment data showed that more of the new jobs were in the service sector than in manufacturing, a sector traditionally covered by unions.
Manufacturing jobs have declined steadily in Maryland in recent years. The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation reported that manufacturing jobs in the state fell from 173,400 in December 2000 to 144,500 in December 2004.
Many of the manufacturing jobs — and the job losses — were in the Baltimore region. State data showed manufacturing jobs in the region fell from 106,500 in 1994 to 78,400 in 2004.
Another 1,100 jobs will be lost when General Motors closes its Broening Highway plant, where May 13 is the last day scheduled for production. General Motors said it is closing the Baltimore plant because of falling demand for Chevy Astro and GMC Safari vans produced there, not any global economic pressures.
But Fred Mason, president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO, said changes in the United States’ role in the global economy are behind many of the job losses in the manufacturing sector.
“The U.S. is less of an industrial and producing country and more a consumer country,” Mason said. Manufacturing production once done by American or Maryland workers has moved abroad, he said.
A local representative of the United Steelworkers of America said trade agreements and foreign competition are major factors behind the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Many manufacturers have curtailed production and instead bought cheaper imports, or have moved operations overseas to reduce expenditures, said Jim Strong, sub-director of the steelworkers district that covers Maryland.
“It’s hard to compete with workers that don’t have the standard of living that we have,” Strong said.
One labor observer said the declining union numbers point to “a challenge” for unions to rethink their strategy of the last 70 years. Unions should start organizing internationally, since many U.S. companies and businesses operate overseas, said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.
“Building global unions is an essential part of the 21st century,” he said.
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