NORFOLK, Va. — Since the early days of American industry, labor unions have been a part of the working environment. Most recently labor unions made headlines as the Writers Guild of America initiated a strike in Hollywood on behalf of screenwriters.
But back in the nineteenth century, the U.S. Department of Labor explains that labor activists also went on strike asking for a federal holiday recognizing America’s workforce. That resulted in the Labor Day holiday.
Some workers in Virginia, like Steven Masterson, told News 3 they’re proud to be part of the workforce.
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“‘Laborer’ to me is someone who puts in their blood, sweat, tears, and time, and gains in education and knowledge of a trade, to take care of their community,” said Steven Masterson, training director for United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 110.
Masterson has been in the plumbing trade for several decades. He helps train workers in Virginia and find them work. He said as a member of a union he likes to reflect on the work they and others do over the holiday.
“It’s important to me because it recognizes what our past brothers and sisters went through. Long ago a work week was seven days a week, 12 hours a day. That was normal, you know, you worked sunup to sundown,” said Masterson.
He said this year he’s training his largest group in Norfolk and has more than 100 apprentices learning plumbing and pipefitting.
While his classes grow, the number of people joining Virginia unions has not.
“In this case we’re talking more about membership,” said Anya Vrabie, economist at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The most recent U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows union members accounted for 3.7% of Virginia’s workforce in 2022.
“That 3.7 is actually a low value for Virginia,” added Vrabie.
That’s below the nation’s 10.1% of union members in the workforce.
Researchers started tracking data in 1989, Virginia peaked with union membership in 1992 at 9.3%, hit a low in 2007 and again in 2022.
Vrabie added that low union rates in Virginia have been consistent over time and said there’s most likely a number of factors at play.
“In terms of employment, Virginia has higher concentrations in employment in industries that happen to have those lower unionization rates, especially in professional and technical services for example, and just lower concentrations of employment in those higher unionization industries, but that of course can change by area,” said Vrabie.
She said South Carolina and North Carolina have the lowest union membership rates and national union membership has fallen since 1983.
Some states are also right-to-work states.
Right-to-work means that workers have the ability to opt out of unions and companies must remain an “open shop.”
The Taft-Hartley Act kicked off the history of right-to-work in 1947.
North Carolina enacted their right-to-work law that same year. In the years following 26 other states joined in, including Virginia.