WILKES-BARRE – Northeastern Pennsylvania has traditionally been labor strong. But this soul of the United Mine Workers and other prominent unions has followed national trends downward, with less than 1 in 5 workers now represented by a union, and half that number in private industry.
Ed Harry, president of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Labor Council, said local union membership is "way down" and worries that good paying union jobs are being replaced by $10 per hour distribution center positions.
"Just drive through the industrial parks and you will see a lot of empty buildings," Harry said. "Thousands of people have lost their jobs – jobs that have gone overseas to China and other places. It's decimated the labor movement locally and nationally."
Harry said the public sector is now feeling similar effects. Cuts in funding for education have resulted in school districts laying off hundreds of workers and governments like Luzerne County, where 60 positions have been cut, are reducing work forces, he said.
"It's not a good thing any place," Harry said. "More and more trade agreements are taking all the good jobs out of this country.
"This country better wake up," he said. "Soon there won't be any good jobs here."
Harry said he has heard rhetoric from politicians, but feels Republicans and Democrats alike are to blame.
"They all say we need jobs, jobs, jobs," Harry said. "But who is bringing the jobs back to the U.S.? The trade agreements are killing us. It's not a fair playing field."
Besides China, jobs are going to Asia, Central America and other places that don't have the same labor laws and regulations, he said.
"They're sweat shops," he said. "I try not to buy anything made in China, but that's very hard to accomplish."
Roxanne Pauline of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Area Labor Federation, agreed that union jobs have been affected by the economy.
"More people than normal are out of work," she said. "And that makes it difficult to negotiate contracts."
Pauline said union membership has stayed level recently, despite the lack of work. Some tradespeople are seeking to be retrained in skills needed in new job markets like natural gas drilling and solar panel installation.
"Many union workers are being re-schooled for jobs that are becoming available," she said.
Labor has been a strong institution in the region for decades – from the mining industry to the garment workers.
But union membership in American workplaces has dropped dramatically in the past several decades, particularly in the private sector.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.8 percent of wage and salary workers were members of unions in 2011. In 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.
Public sector workers, such as government employees and teachers, had a union membership rate of 37 percent in 2011, five times higher than the 6.9 percent of those in the private sector.
In Pennsylvania, the BLS said 14.6 percent of workers belonged to unions. The bureau said that in 2011, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $938, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $729.
According to data compiled by the Labor Market Reporter, private sector union membership peaked at 39 percent in 1958 and then began to fall steadily.
Patty Ludwikowski, vice president for hospitals for the Service Employees International Union Local Healthcare PA, said the union has about 23,000 members statewide. She said she recently helped organize some 4,000 state home care workers.
"Workers feel they need a voice," she said. "The demands for health care and the rapid changes have made health care facilities operate more like a business."
Ludwikowski said her sector is one that is growing, unlike many other unions. She said with the region's high elderly population, health care is a major employer and those workers need representation to assure they get fair wages and benefits.
Long a union stronghold, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Luzerne, Lackawanna and Wyoming counties, now is about average in the proportion of workers belonging to unions.
In 2011, 14.3 percent of all workers were union members, according to Unionstats.com. That compares to 11.8 percent nationally.
Twenty-five years ago the local figure was 23.8 percent. The decline is entirely in private employment, where union membership fell to 9.5 percent from 20.2 percent. Still, that's much higher than the 6.9 percent national rate.
Over the same time period public sector employment rose slightly, to 49.5 percent from 46.1 percent.