Minnesota labor unions dodged a bruising and expensive battle in 2012 when right-to-work supporters failed to get their amendment on the November ballot.

But a new federal report shows that union memberships in Minnesota continued to shrink in 2012, mirroring a national trend.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported last week that union membership in the nation dropped from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012.

A higher portion of Minnesotans belong to labor unions, but Minnesota clearly is part of the national trend of an eroding unionized workforce.

About 14.2 percent of Minnesota workers were union members in 2012, down from 15.1 percent in 2011, according to the BLS.

Three decades ago, about one in five American workers belonged to labor unions. Today it's fairly common for a government employee to belong to a union, but exceedingly rare for a private-sector employee to work in a unionized environment.

The BLS reported that 35.9 percent of public-sector employees belonged to unions in 2012, while only 6.6 percent of Americans working in the private sector were union members.

Politicians Vs. Public Sector Unions

The political push to restrain the costs of public-sector labor contracts played out in dramatic fashion in neighboring Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators repealed collective bargaining rights of public employees a few years ago.

Earlier this month, Walker scored a major victory when a federal appeals court upheld the Wisconsin law.

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In Minnesota, DFL Governor Mark Dayton and a DFL-controlled Legislature are unlikely to curb union rights during the 2013 session.

But the cost of public employee labor contracts will continue to be a thorny political issue, especially with some Minnesotans who've seen their property taxes spiral to cover the costs of school districts and local governments.

In Minnesota, there are 415,300 government jobs, which breaks out as 31,400 federal jobs, 102,100 state workers and 281,800 local government employees, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

DEED spokesman Monte Hanson said that 65,100 of the state employees are in education, primarily professors and staff at state colleges and universities. Most of the remaining 37,000 state employees work for state agencies. The local government category includes teachers at elementary and high schools.

“The growth in government jobs in Minnesota last year (0.7 percent) was well behind the overall growth for all jobs in the state, up 1.9 percent,” Hanson said.

The BLS report doesn't break out the private sector vs. public sector union membership numbers for Minnesota. The BLS report was based on a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 U.S. households, so annual changes in the state-by-state figures for union memberships have a higher sampling error than the national figures.

Manufacturing to Service Economy

But the overall thrust of the survey highlights the challenges that organized labor faces in recruiting new members as the nation shifts away from a huge manufacturing base to a more service-oriented economy.

For example, in Minnesota, employment with manufacturing firms peaked in 1998 at 395,200. Minnesota still has a significant manufacturing base, but companies are more efficient and take advantage of technology that allows them to employ fewer manufacturing workers.

In 2012, Minnesota employers added 50,700 non-farm jobs, helping to bring the unemployment rate down to 5.5 percent. Nearly 45 percent of the job gains were in education and health services, about 22,700 workers.

With the disappearance of union jobs such as those at the Ford plant in St. Paul, there has been a constant chipping away of long-term union jobs in Minnesota's economy. Fewer young people are growing up in union households and many workers recognize that economic changes will dictate that they move from one workplace to the next every few years.

Unions are placing a greater emphasis on organizing service workers, but union leaders have had a rough time retaining and gaining union jobs in the private sector.

The BLS study reported that there are 7.3 million public sector employees who belong to unions in the United States. Meanwhile, there are only 7 million private sector workers who are union members, which translates to 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce.

This creates tension between non-union taxpayers and unionized government employees that will be a flash point for years to come.

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