RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- The number of unionized workers in Virginia fell by 4,000 last year and is nearing its lowest level in three decades.
A report released Wednesday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 159,000 union members, or about 4.4 percent of the work force, employed in the state in 2012. That's down from 4.6 percent in 2011. The number of workers in Virginia represented by unions was 5.5 percent in 2012, slightly less than the year before.
The statistics show that nationally, membership dropped last year from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent of the work force, the lowest level since the 1930s.
The national decline occurred as cash-strapped state and local governments shed workers and unions faced challenges organizing new members in the private sector despite signs of an improving economy. Overall membership fell by about 400,000 workers to 14.4 million, bureau figures show. More than half the loss, about 234,000, came from government workers, including teachers, firefighters and public administrators.
National union membership was 13.2 percent in 1935 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. Labor's ranks peaked in the 1950s, when about 1 of every 3 workers was in a union. By 1983, roughly 20 percent of U.S. workers were union members.
Virginia's union membership has generally declined annually and has remained below the national rate since state data were available in 1989. That year, the state rate was 9.1 percent.
Since then, Virginia saw its lowest union membership rates of 3.7 and 4.1 percent in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Late last month, the Virginia Senate has killed a measure that would write the state's longstanding right-to-work law into its constitution on a party line vote.
Republican Sen. Dick Black, who crafted the resolution, called it a pro-business principle so cherished in Virginia that it should be in its constitution. But Democratic Sen. Don McEachin noted that there has never been an effort by either party to repeal the law that allows for compulsory union membership as a condition of employment in some trades.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.