Greenhouse Gas

The ever-optimistic Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times sees “important silver linings in the gloomy report” of the Bureau of Labor Statistics on union membership. He cites the gain of 110,000 new union members in California, while failing to note that this increase raised the union market share in the state from 17.1% to a whopping 17.2%.

Greenhouse is also very excited about the increase of 156,000 Latino union members last year, while omitting that only 9.8% of Latinos belonged to unions in 2012, down from 11.2% in 2001.

But who cares about numbers anyway? Greenhouse cites Georgia State University labor economist Barry T. Hirsch to explain them away:

Professor Hirsch suggested that the reported drop-off in union members in the Midwest might be exaggerated because when questioners doing the household survey that was crucial to last week’s report went to workers‘ homes to interview them, some union members might have grown reluctant to acknowledge to the questioners that they belonged to a union because unions had taken such a public relations beating from government officials.

Whatever helps you sleep at night, Professor Hirsch.

I don’t enjoy criticizing Greenhouse because I empathize with him. We are both covering a demonstrably dying beat. But Greenhouse has a long and storied history of trying to find the union pony in the dung heap. A couple of years ago I compiled a very long timeline of Greenhouse stories in which he detected signs of a labor resurgence. Those stories go back to 1996.

It’s especially ironic since, as I noted then, Greenhouse had a more prescient and insightful idea in one of his first labor columns in April 1992:

Some people are wondering whether the marginalization of labor portends a return to America’s roots. In this view, the boom of labor for the four decades after 1935 may prove to be a brief parenthesis in the history of the land of hard-scrabble entrepreneurs.

In this view, the future holds only more trouble for unions. Many of the trends that have hurt unions – the surge of foreign competition, the mushrooming of services, and the rise of small, agile firms like those in Silicon Valley – are expected to continue. In addition, managements have become far more sophisticated in providing benefit packages so that workers conclude they can get what they need without unions. But many union officials are confident that labor will come back.

That was 20 years ago, when union members made up 16% of the U.S. workforce. Today’s union officials would call the early ’90s their salad days.