AUSTIN, Tex.—Texas labor unions are not in as bad shape as the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics figures released last week made them out to be, the state AFL-CIO says.

The BLS figures said unions lost 119,000 members in the Lone Star State last year, with their share of the workforce plummeting to 3.8%, fifth lowest in the nation. The Texas AFL-CIO blames those results on “statistical quirks,” as the figures are based on the Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey and not a “formal census count.”

“The BLS has wonderful, smart economists and others who analyze the labor markets, but membership rises and drops that come out this time each year have never comported with the membership trends of the Texas AFL-CIO,” the federation said in its news digest.

Texas AFL-CIO membership has held steady at between 235,000 and 240,000 for several years, it said. 

Last year, according to the BLS, the number of union members in Texas fell from 563,000 to 454,000, the lowest number in a decade. But its figures for the state have fluctuated wildly during that period, going up 65,000 in 2012, down 81,000 in 2013, down another 81,000 in 2015 and 2016, up 81,000 in 2017, and up 66,000 in 2020.

“We are confident that if 20 percent of the union membership of Texas had vanished in one year, our own membership would have seen a precipitous fall as well, the state federation said. “If we thought Texas really had gained 66,000 union members last year, I suspect a Texas AFL-CIO parade would have been in order. We did not. Similarly, we are not holding a funeral service over this year’s numbers. What we are doing is organizing more among working people who have come to a pandemic realization that miserable, low-paying jobs need not govern every moment of their existence.”

The BLS figures are based on responses from wage and salary workers included in a sample of about 15,000 households in the Current Population Survey. That is large enough to be accurate nationally, but like political polls, less reliable at the state level. 

The 2021 survey found that 4.7% of Texas workers are represented by a union, including 117,000 nonmembers. In 2020, it said unions represented 6% of the state’s workforce, including 130,000 nonmembers, up 15,000 from 2019.

Texas is still the second least unionized of the U.S.’s ten largest states, ahead of only North Carolina. Unions’ main strongholds, state AFL-CIO president Rick Levy told LaborPress in 2019, are the Fort Worth area — which includes Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, the Lockheed Martin aerospace plant in Fort Worth, and the General Motors factory in Arlington — and the industrial areas of Houston and the Gulf Coast, from Beaumont to Corpus Christi. About one-fourth of the state federation’s members are teachers, from the Texas American Federation of Teachers and the smaller Texas State Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate.

Nonunion construction workers, largely immigrants, are ripe for organizing, Levy added.

The state is now the site of two long-running labor disputes. Exxon Mobil has locked out more than 650 members of United Steelworkers Local 13-243 at its Beaumont oil refinery and lubricant-blending facility since April 30. Local 13-243 members have rejected a contract offer that would largely eliminate seniority rights, and the company is campaigning to get the union decertified. The National Labor Relations Board impounded ballots in the decertification vote in late December after the Steelworkers filed unfair-labor-practice charges.

The 72 musicians in the San Antonio Symphony have been on strike since Sept. 27, after management of the financially troubled orchestra imposed a contract that slashed their pay for a 30-week season from about $35,000 to $24,500, eliminated four positions, and cut 26 musicians down to part-time at an annual salary of $11,250 with no benefits.

American Federation of Musicians Local 23 agreed to an 80% pay cut when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled performances during the 2020-21 season. The union on Jan. 6 offered to play the rest of the current season at its rates for 2019-20, but management has not responded. Local 23 says the San Antonio Symphony is the only one of the U.S.’s 51 full-time orchestras that is not returning its musicians to pre-pandemic salaries.


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