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Home health care union vote bucks national labor trend

ST. PAUL — The creation of a new bargaining unit to represent the state’s 27,000 home health care workers could boost the dwindling ranks of union membership in once labor-strong Minnesota.

While the percentage of Minnesota workers affiliated with unions is still above the national average, it has been steadily declining since its peak at 22 percent in 1992, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of 2013, 14.3 percent of Minnesota workers were union members.

“The pattern in Minnesota has mirrored national pattern,” said Peter Rachleff, a labor historian and professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. Nationally, 11.3 percent of employed workers were union members in 2013 — the lowest figure in nearly a century.

Rachleff attributes this downward trend — both nationally and in Minnesota — to two factors: the ongoing transition of the U.S. economy from largely goods-based to service-based, and increased efforts on the part of employers to trim labor costs.

In the years since 1992, Minnesota has lost nearly 35,000 manufacturing jobs — a sector Rachleff says traditionally had high levels of union membership.

“Manufacturing jobs have been exported to Mexico, China, Vietnam — other parts of the world,” he said. “So, manufacturing no longer plays the role in the U.S. it once did.”

At the same time, American employers have become increasingly reliant upon contingent and part-time workers. These workers are often employed through a third party, so their ability to bargain with the company where they work is limited. Such was the case for nonunion janitors who work at Target stores, but are employed through contract vendors; Target agreed to labor concessions for the janitors earlier this year after years of protests.