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Ohio Union Membership Holds Steady For Fifth Straight Year

Jo Ingles
Statehouse News Bureau
About 200 members of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees showed up to protest pension cuts in June 2017.

For the fifth year in a row, the number of unionized workers in Ohio remained relatively stable, according to a report released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But some experts disagree on what the trend means for state policy.

According to the data, 12.5 percent of Ohio workers are unionized – about one in every eight workers. And that ratio hasn't really changed over the past several years: in 2016, 12.4 percent of Ohio workers were unionized.

Ohio's rate of union participation was higher than the U.S. average of 10.7 percent.

"I think it's great news, because [unionized workers] generally make higher wages and have more of a say in their workplace," says Amy Hanauer, director of the progressive think tank Policy Matters Ohio. 

The long term trend for union membership in Ohio is still down, however, with the number of union participation about 11 percent lower than it was a decade ago.

"Many years into a recovery right now, we are seeing very limited wage growth," Hanauer says.

She would like to see the government do more to push membership numbers higher. For instance, Hanauer says, governments could require the companies it contracts with have union-friendly policies, which would encourage union participation, which would help more workers bargain for better wages.

But she worries memberships could drop if Republicans in the Statehouse pass a so-called "right-to-work" bill.

HB 53, which is sponsored by state Rep. John Becker of Union Township, would bar public employers from requiring their employees pay fees to a union. Robert Alt, who heads the conservative Buckeye Institute, is for it.

"You shouldn't be forced to pay for speech you disagree with as a condition for employment, particularly if you're a public servant,” Alt says.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in February over “Janus v. AFSCME,” a case about union fees that could negatively impact membership numbers across the country. The Buckeye Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief last summer in the case.

Alt says he's not opposed to unions, but says it's a matter of personal freedom. He says the choice to contribute financially to union must be voluntary.

"It has a positive effect of making unions more responsive to the needs and desires of the workers," Alt says. "That makes the unions, ultimately, I think, more effective."

HB 53 was introduced into the House last February and referred to the finance committee, but hasn’t moved since then.