CHICAGO -- Organized labor is no longer in denial about its dwindling numbers and diminished political power: Unions lost 400,000 members last year, and states like Indiana and Wisconsin have clipped the organizing rights of state employees and others. These changes are driving traditional unions toward innovative, but potentially risky, new approaches.
The new ideas being explored are rooted in the belief that many more workers than the 14.4 million who currently belong to labor unions would organize in some way if they had the opportunity.
Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said the fact that 60 million workers say they would join a labor union today if they could often gets lost in the public dialogue about labor's future. "They write the obituary and they throw out these numbers as if this is really what the state of labor is," he said. "But what they don't say is how many people want one."
Labor leaders see the largest growth potential in the private-sector -- the overwhelming majority of the country's workforce -- where union membership as fallen farther and more quickly than in the public sector. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, only 6.6 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, compared to 35.9 percent of public-sector workers.
The trend of declining union membership in general over the past 20 years continued in some states that passed right-to-work laws last year allowing workers to decide whether they want to join or financially support a union. Total union membership in Indiana declined by 2 percent in 2012, from 11.3 percent to 9.1 percent of all workers. Similarly, Wisconsin saw a 2 percent decline in union membership in 2012, following major restrictions on collective bargaining rights championed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011.
Labor leaders see reason for hope in the growth of nonunion groups that are finding unconventional ways to represent workers in difficult-to-organize industries, such as warehouses, retail and restaurants, and are exploring ways to partner with and support those efforts.
"(These groups) work with a big portion of workforce that is underrepresented and exploited and potentially could represent a renaissance in the labor movement," said Bob Bruno, director of the University of Illinois Labor Education Program. "Those workers are being served by a lot of organizations that aren't unions but are working for the empowerment of the working class."
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, was blunt about labor's challenges at a conference here last month that brought together key labor leaders, academics and community groups to discuss "New Models of Worker Representation." The AFL-CIO is a federation of 57 labor unions that represent more than 12 million private- and public-sector workers.
"This subject, new models and ways to represent workers, carries an implicit criticism of the model the labor movement uses today," Mr. Trumka said. "Some people think accepting criticism is a mark of vulnerability, but I'm really not concerned about appearing vulnerable, because working people and labor unions have been vulnerable for years. No amount of bluster or head-in-the-sand insistence that everything is fine will change that reality."
AFL-CIO leaders have launched a 6-month-long planning effort to come up with more viable union models. New approaches will be discussed and finalized at its convention in September in Los Angeles.