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West Virginia loses 9,000 union workers in 2012

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The number of union workers in West Virginia is nearing its lowest point in memory, according to federal figures released Wednesday.

The number of union workers in the state has dropped sharply over the past three decades but held relatively steady in the last decade. But in 2012, about 9,000 fewer union members had jobs than in 2011.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said 84,000 union members had jobs in West Virginia in 2012, or about 12 percent of the wage-earning workforce.

That's the second lowest number of union workers since 1983, the first year for which comparable figures are available, according to, a respected site run by two university professors. In 1998, about 83,000 union members had jobs.

Officials at the state's largest union, the AFL-CIO, did not have a solid or single explanation for what happened last year.

Union President Kenny Perdue said the West Virginia AFL-CIO's membership had increased over the past decade and now stands at about 70,000 active members and about 70,000 retirees.

Perdue said an economic slowdown was likely responsible for the decline.

The AFL-CIO's growth has depended on public workers joining unions.

"We're getting more public sector, we're getting more teachers, more school service, more state employees," Perdue said.

In 1983, there were about 142,000 union workers in West Virginia.

More than 80 percent of them were private sector workers. In 2011, roughly half the labor force was private sector and the other half were public sector employees, including teachers.

A spokesman for the state's other major union group, the Teamsters, did not return a call seeking comment.

State Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts, a union foe, blamed stagnation and decline in unionized industries.

"We've had no increase in construction jobs - they've remained flat - we've had a decline of 5,000 in mining and a decline of 2,200 in manufacturing," Roberts said. "That may well help explain why there are fewer union members working."

The federal figures show the number of union members who are working. They do not show unions' total membership, so some union workers in struggling sectors, like construction, could remain in a union but without a union job.

Some laid-off union members also expect to return to work. About 5,000 mining and logging jobs were lost last year, according to state workforce figures. Not many of those were union members, said United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith, but those that were may return to work and boost the ranks of working union members.

Smith said about 300 laid-off miners in Boone County are expecting to return to work at some point, for instance.

"Those will be union jobs that will jump up," Smith said.

Nationally, union membership is shrinking.

The number of union workers stood at 14.4 million in 2012, down from 17.7 million union workers in 1983.

Perdue said unions are under siege from the wealthy and from outsourcing.

"I think there is an out-and-out attack by the wealthy to eliminate a class of workers, and that is union membership," Perdue said.

Roberts said it was ironic that union membership was down with a union-friendly Democrat in the White House.

"They've got more voice and less jobs," Roberts said.

Contact writer Ry Rivard at or 304-348-1796. Follow him at



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