PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s union ranks have been hit hard by the decline of paper and other manufacturing jobs, but organized labor has held the line in other areas.

The decline in Maine and elsewhere leaves organized labor looking for other growing industries in the state, such as health care or lobstering, where workers might want to negotiate collective contracts.

“Any time there’s a major shift in the U.S. economy … I think it takes workers some time to figure out how to organize and have an effective collective voice in that new economic arrangement,” Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said.

The longer-term trend falls in line with the rest of the nation, where union representation and membership have fallen generally.

The number of U.S. workers employed under a union contract fell to 13.7 percent last year, down from 16.5 percent in 2000 and a recent high of 24.1 percent in 1983, according to federal statistics.

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The trend in Maine is driven by a job decline in the highly unionized manufacturing industry.

About 80 percent of the drop in Maine from 2000 to 2015 came from a drop in card-carrying workers in manufacturing, where last year there were about one-third the number of workers under union contracts 15 years ago.

Looking back another decade to 1990, about 90 percent of the private sector decline in union representation in Maine was in manufacturing, notably with large job cuts in papermaking. Paper manufacturing jobs dropped by about 7,000 in the past 15 years.

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Meanwhile, public union representation has bucked the overall decline, and sharp representation declines in manufacturing have not come to other private industry, according to analysis of detailed federal data by researchers Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson.

Public-sector workers represented by unions in Maine outnumbered those in the private sector by about 2-to-1 in 2015, which is the result of fairly recent declines.

Averaged over three years, the estimate of public-sector union workers has risen by about 1.3 percent since 2000. In the private sector, union losses have been steady but not as deep as in manufacturing, with 17.4 percent fewer nonmanufacturing workers represented by unions in the private sector.

Organizing ahead

Schlobohm said he thinks private-sector union ranks in Maine will hold steady in the coming years, encouraged by an economy he said “is out of balance.”

“Whether it’s the ongoing drive of pharmacists or paralegals or lobstermen, there is a strong sense across the state that this economy is out of balance and there is organization across different sectors of the economy,” he said.

A group of lobstermen voted to form a union in 2013 and pharmacists at Shaw’s locations around Maine voted to organize last year.

The distance to close that income inequality gap appears to be smaller in Maine. A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute ranked Maine 46th for the disparity between the average income of the top 1 percent of earners to the bottom 99 percent.

The recession did lead to a period of the fastest decline in total wages in a decade, but that trend reversed sharply in 2014 with a tightening labor market, according to Glenn Mills, chief economist at the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

In a presentation to the Legislature at the end of January, Mills indicated wages in 2015 showed the fastest growth in more than 10 years in 2015.

As organized labor searches for the industries and sectors where it will stake its future, Schlobohm said he sees broader petitions to the government, including the 2016 statewide referendum to raise the state minimum wage to $12.

“All of these kinds of campaigns for raising wages are another way to bargain on behalf of thousands of workers,” Schlobohm said.

Maine in context

Maine is about in the middle of the pack for its share of public and private union-represented workers in 2015, and for the degree of the decline in union work since 2000.

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That measure is the result of two estimates: the total workforce and the total number of union employees.

For Maine, the total workforce estimate changed little from 2000 to 2015. In most states, the workforce estimate rose as union representation declined, with both factors contributing to a drop in the total share of union jobs.

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Year-over-year, change in the data from relatively small survey samples doesn’t show much about union representation, but the longer-term trend does reflect a slow decline in union membership in Maine and elsewhere, according to Lisa Williamson, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes estimates of union membership and representation, but does not break out industry categories or other details from its household Current Population Survey, as researchers Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson have done with the data.

Schlobohm, with the Maine AFL-CIO, said he does see ebbs and flows in the data but the slow decline over the longer term aligns with trends over the last 30 and 40 years.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.