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Unions Face Declining Membership, Education Void

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(credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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By Colin Smith

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As Americans celebrate Labor Day, labor unions are facing a steadily declining membership.

In 2011, the number of Minnesota workers belonging to a union was 371,000, representing 15.1 percent of the state’s wage and salary workers. That number is down from 15.6 percent in 2010. At its peak in 1992, the membership rate was 22 percent.

Why the constant decline? One academic thinks a lack of education is to blame.

“There is no labor history in the so-called social studies standards,” said Peter Rachleff, labor history professor with Macalester College. “Kids are not being tested coming out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul city schools as to whether they know the history of the unions.”

As children aren’t learning about labor in the classroom, Rachleff argues Hollywood isn’t helping fill the void.

“Do we see characters in unions in television shows or sitcoms or mysteries? It’s very, very rare,” Rachleff said.

That lack of information could be fueling an image problem for American unions.

This year alone, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election fueled by anger over his promise to reform public pensions and Indiana became a right-to-work state.

The Democratic National Convention begins Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., a city with one of the lowest union membership rates in the U.S.

But despite declining membership, Minnesota remains a strong union supporter. Minnesota’s 15.1 percent is higher than the national average of 11.8 percent, and ranks third in the Midwest behind only Michigan (17.5 percent) and Illinois (16.2 percent).

Rachleff was a guest of Jearlyn Steele on WCCO Radio.

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