The headlines are ominous for unions. A Republican won the Senate seat in Massachusetts. The Democrats no longer have a 60-vote supermajority to enact legislation without Republican assistance. During 2009, union membership decreased. Unions have been filing fewer petitions for elections with the National Labor Relations Board. Yet, as one union organizer for the Teamsters Union told me, the unions are still organizing workers and waiting for Congress to enact labor law reform.

Regarding membership, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its statistics on January 22, 2010. By the end of 2009, unions lost 771,000 members, a decrease from 12.4% to 12.3% of all workers. 15.3 million workers were members of unions. This is a decrease from 17.7 million workers in 1983, when 20.1% of employees were union members. In light of what is being called the Great Recession, the loss of members has more to do with the loss of jobs, in general, than the loss of support by employees for a union.

Of the 15.3 million union workers, 7.9 million union members were employees working for local, state and federal governments while 7.4 million work for privately-owned companies. In government agencies, 37.4% of employees were union members, whereas, in privately-held companies, only 7.2% of the employees were unionized. In the states, New York had the highest percentage of union members (25.2%) and North Carolina had the lowest percentage of union members (3.1%). States in the South had the lowest percentage of union membership due, in our opinion, to the lack of a historic industrial base and the right-to-work laws in those states which allow employees represented by a union to decide not to become members of the union representing them.

Unions are very aware of these statistics and union leaders are continuing to push for labor law reform. The Employee Free Choice Act was introduced and we believe compromises will be made to enact it.

More importantly, President Obama has appointed three new members to the National Labor Relations Board, who can issue decisions and draft rules making it easier for unions to organize workers. Although the Senate has not yet approved these nominations, the Senate will act this year. And, if the Teamsters’ organizer is correct, employees may be secretly talking with unions and unions are just waiting for the best time to file a petition for an election. Therefore, as one senior vice president of human resources for a multi-national corporation told us recently, all human resource professionals need to plan and manage with an understanding and appreciation for union organizing and the expected changes.