PHOENIX - Union membership in Arizona has slipped to its lowest level in a quarter-century.

New figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show just 125,000 Arizonans belonged to a union last year.

That is certainly not the lowest number ever. But when compared to the size of the workforce - an estimated 2.4 million last year - it computes out to just 5.1 percent of those employed.

The highest figures BLS has recorded since 1989 came in 2007 and 2008 at 8.8 percent.

Rebekah Friend, executive director of the state AFL-CIO, said that is no coincidence.

She said the recession wiped out a lot of middle-class jobs, held by the people who were union members or those likely to join unions. That includes not just public employees but also retail trade.

That's also the assessment of Andrew Morrill, who holds a similar position with the Arizona Education Association.

He said Arizona lost 4,500 teaching positions since the first round of budget cuts in 2009. Assuming that anywhere from 60 percent to 70 percent of these people were AEA members, that alone translates out to 2,700 to 3,150 fewer union members.

But both said that's only part of the equation.

Friend said the jobs that Arizona has been landing have not been in industries that are willing to deal with legitimate demands of their workers. Instead, she said, the state has become home to companies looking for the cheapest workforce available.

"We're not adding jobs that even provide a living wage," she said. "We're becoming the call-center capital, or the place where you come when you don't want to deal with a union."

Arizona is a "right-to-work" state. That means no one can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment.

There have been other changes in public policy that also have made life more difficult for unions.

For example, lawmakers in 2011 approved a measure to prohibit any public or private employer from deducting money from a worker's paycheck for political purposes unless the employee gives written or electronic authorization each and every year. Proponents argued they will be doing that on behalf of union employees.

A federal judge blocked enforcement of the measure as discriminatory. But that has not kept lawmakers from pushing similar measures.

And a co-founder of the anti-union Goldwater Institute just launched an initiative drive to bar automatic payroll deductions for political purposes, a move that would blunt union influence.

Morrill said that whole question of union power becomes a separate issue.

He said that some people entering the teaching profession do not necessarily realize that much of what has been gained in education legislation is the result of years of activity by the AEA. Morrill said he needs to convince teachers that there is a reason to join and there is strength in numbers.

"Collectively, we have the ability to speak out for the needs of students better than anybody else in the state," he said. More members, Morrill said, mean "a louder voice at the state Capitol."

A spokesman for the Goldwater Institute, which has helped craft many of the measures aimed at unions, would not comment.


Union membership in Arizona:

Membership Percent of Year in 1,000s employed

1990 115 7.7%

1995 145 8.0%

2000 140 6.6%

2005 145 6.1%

2007 230 8.8%

2008 227 8.8%

2010 161 6.4%

2012 125 5.1%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics