Unions waning in South Dakota

Unions waning in South Dakota

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SIOUX FALLS - While some local unions are bucking the trend, overall, South Dakota unions are being affected by a nationwide decline in union membership.

The decline is a reflection of the nation's troubled economy.

South Dakota had 21,000 union members in 1997. The number dropped to 19,000 in 2002, according to figures from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

As in other parts of the country, layoffs and closures have caused most of the decline, according to Gil Koetzle, president of the South Dakota AFL-CIO. The closing of Homestake Mine in Lead alone accounts for the loss of more than 600 union members, he said.

The AFL-CIO represents about 7,100 members and 84 union organizations in South Dakota, Koetzle said. But that is down from an all-time high of 7,800 three years ago in a state that has never been known for having many union members.

"We've taken some pretty hard hits lately," Koetzle said. "Minnesota Rubber laid off an entire shift in Watertown recently - that's 70 jobs we lost to Mexico. And Hub City in

Aberdeen lays off 10 here, 12 there, another three or six here and there, and it really starts adding up."

But economic factors are not the only thing causing the decline. The shrinking population in rural South Dakota is also contributing to membership losses.

Many teachers in the state are members of the National Education Association. But as student numbers drop and rural schools consolidate, the number of teachers has dropped, Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the group in Washington, D.C., said.

Of the 2.7 million nationwide, the National Education Association had nearly 8,000 members in South Dakota a few years ago, and last year had 7,715 members in South Dakota, Lyons said.

Membership now stands at about 7,400, said Al Bahe, communications director for South Dakota Education Association, the state affiliate of the national group. That includes some university students who are working on teaching degrees and some retired teachers.

"We've seen a downward trend as there are fewer positions available," Bahe said.

But even in slow economic times, some unions are growing.

The Sioux Falls area Carpenter's Union, one of the many AFL-CIO affiliated groups in the region, disbanded its union activity for 20 years.

"It was the 1980s, in a bad recession, with 20 percent interest rates and no one was building anything," said Mike Rifen, Sioux Falls field agent for the local Carpenters Union.

But about five years ago, Rifen decided to join and was part of a steady growth that now includes about 75 members in Sioux Falls, 140 state wide, and 620,000 nationally.

The group is getting some response from an ad running on area radio stations. Another 30 to 40 are expected to join the local chapter this year, Rifen said.

Members of unions for public employees have also bucked the downward trend.

"Despite news that some of the national industrial unions lost members, ours is actually growing," said Paul Aylward, executive director of South Dakota's union representing public employees: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees, Council No. 519.

City and county job numbers do not swing up and down as dramatically as in private businesses, he said, since workloads generally stay the same. Certain tasks must continue to be done for government to continue to operate, he said.

Based in Huron, the union is affiliated with the national AFL-CIO.

The local now represents about 2,000 non-uniformed employees, Aylward said, many of them city employees throughout South Dakota.

Membership includes the cities of Sioux Falls, Huron, Watertown, Rapid City and Vermillion, Minnehaha County and some North Dakota towns. The Council also represents school custodians in Sioux Falls, Huron and Brookings, and some state highway workers.

"In the past 20 years, more and more government workers in South Dakota decided they want to organize," Aylward said.

"When most nonunion people think of unions, they think of strikes, but that's rare here in South Dakota," he said. "Probably one of our biggest advantages is job security. In places where there have been layoffs, our union contracts give the senior employees some protection."

And if an employee is fired without a clear reason, or under questionable circumstances, the union will help fight the case, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, Aylward said.

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