The number of American workers grew by 2.4 million in
2012. But fewer of them were members of a union. In fact, the national union
membership rate fell last year to its lowest level in nearly a century. And
there's no shortage of reasons for that decline.
Union membership in the United States has generally been in a state of decline
since the 1950s, when it peaked at about 25 percent. But last year's drop was precipitous:
400,000 members, according to a report last month from the Bureau of Labor
Statistics (BLS), taking the total to 14.3 million. That represents about 11.3
percent of the total U.S. workforce, the lowest union membership rate since
1916, when it stood at 11.2 percent, according to a study by Rutgers economists
Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin.
Labor experts say several factors contributed to the steep decline. One is the
recent laws passed in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states rolling back the
power of public employee unions. The BLS report showed that Wisconsin and
Indiana were among the states with the highest union-membership drops last
year, 13 percent and 18 respectively. Public-sector unions as a whole didn't
fare well, shedding 234,000 members and about 1 percent of their membership
rate, which now stands at 35.9 percent.
"I am really surprised that the drop in unionization was as large as it is
in a single year, and it was particularly big in the public sector," said
Barry T. Hirsch, a labor economist at Georgia State University: "It does
seem you are seeing reductions in some of the states that you might
Private-sector unions didn't do too much better last year, with manufacturers
like Boeing and Volkswagen continuing their expansion into nonunion states and
job gains coming to industry sectors that aren't heavily unionized like retail
and restaurants. There were signs of resistance to the latter trend in the
Black Friday protests at Walmarts across the country and the one-day fast-food-worker
strike in New York City in November.
Union officials say the unions aren't to blame for the decline in
"It's not a simple story that we don't have our act together," said
William Spriggs, chief economist for the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Spriggs said although it may just sound like "bellyaching,"
Republicans are "really being vindictive against unions, and employers
campaign very hard against workers unionizing."
Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University's
Graduate School of Management in Worcester, Massachusetts, said now actually
seems like the perfect time for unions to be attracting members.
"Workers should be looking to unions because of job insecurity and
stagnant wages," he said, adding "but they're not."
The BLS report indicated that unionized workers, in fact, earned over 20
percent more than their nonunionized counterparts last year, $943 per week
versus $742, although that difference reflects a variety of factors, including
variations in the earnings of union and nonunion members based on occupation,
industry, firm size and geographic region.
But Glenn Spencer, vice president of the Workforce Freedom Initiative of the
United States Chamber of Commerce, said with workers no longer spending their
entire working lives at a single company and changing jobs more frequently,
they no longer see the benefit of union membership.
"Unions have fundamentally had a hard time conveying to workers what their
value proposition is, how they're really going to make workers' lives
better," he said. "And if you look at union contracts and their rigid
work rules, there is no incentive for employers to embrace unions
The news from last year wasn't all bad for unions, however; membership actually
grew in more than a dozen states and by double digits in most of them. (See
Bird's eye view in this issue.) But other statistics, such as the decline of
private-sector union membership to 6.6 percent last year from 6.9 percent the
year before - and from its peak of around 35 percent in the 1950s - point to a
much less certain future for organized labor.
"To employers, it's going to look like the labor movement is ready for a
knockout punch," said Clark University professor Gary Chaison. "You
can't be a movement and get smaller." (NEW YORK TIMES, ATLANTICWIRE.COM,
BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS, NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH, PUBLIC
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