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Tom Feran
By Tom Feran April 25, 2011

Sen. Sherrod Brown says unionization rates are higher at companies that are foreign owned

The stated mission of the U.S. Commerce Department is to help make American businesses more innovative at home and more competitive abroad.

That mission made manufacturing and exports two of the top concerns of Sen. Sherrod Brown when his Senate Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing on the department's proposed budget for fiscal 2012.

The Ohio Democrat called for a national manufacturing strategy, which is the goal of a bipartisan bill he introduced this month with Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican.

But Brown also asked Commerce Secretary Gary Locke what the department is doing to attract foreign investment to the United States. Foreign companies "tend to invest in manufacturing" and to spend money on research and development, Brown said.

"Foreign companies in the United States have a significantly higher unionization rate than other companies overall," he added.

That caught PolitiFact Ohio by surprise.

We knew that union membership has declined significantly since the 1980s, but we also knew that the United Auto Workers has struggled to organize workers at foreign-owned factories, mainly in the South. None of the factories operated by foreign automakers in the region has union workers.

Brown said he understood the surprise, given our auto-centric perspective, but assured us he could back up his statement.

He went a step further and provided specific numbers in a statement from his office: 12.4 percent of workers at foreign-owned U.S. subsidiaries are union employees while fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S. are union employees.

In support, Brown's staff referred us to the Organization for International Investment, a Washington-based business association representing U.S. operations of global companies. Its statistics, we confirmed, are drawn from publicly available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Their figures showed:

Featured Fact-check

  • U.S. subsidiaries of global companies employ 5.6 million Americans (including 231,600 in Ohio, the nation's seventh-highest total). Collective bargaining agreements cover 12.4 percent of those U.S. workers.

  • The union membership rate of all U.S. workers in 2010 was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier. (In 1983, the first year for which comparable figures are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.)

  • The union membership rate for public sector workers (36.2 percent) was "substantially higher" than the rate for private sector workers, which was 6.9 percent.

In sum, U.S. employees of foreign-owned companies have a higher rate of union membership than the U.S. workforce as a whole, and a much higher rate than workers in the private sector.

Brown's statement rates as True.

Our Sources

CQ Congressional Transcripts, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, and Related Agencies hearing on proposed fiscal 2012 appropriations for the Commerce Department, April 14, 2011

Daily Finance, "United Auto Workers Push to Unionize Foreign-Owned U.S. Auto Factories," Jan. 12 2011

Los Angeles Times, "Who wants a union? Not Southern autoworkers, it seems," March 29, 2011

Email with Meghan Dubyak, communications director for Sen. Brown, April 18, 2011

Organization for International Investment, "Insourcing facts," March 2011

Organization for International Investment, "Ohio: Jobs at U.S. subsidiaries of global companies," March 2011

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Union Members Summary," Jan. 21, 2011

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