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Union Membership Drops to 97-Year Low

Just 11.3% of American workforce is unionized


Unions have had a rough time in recent years. Both Indiana and Michigan recently passed right-to-work laws, forbidding unions from collecting a fee from non-union members in a workplace, and Wisconsin’s 2011 stripping unions of collective bargaining rights is still making its way through court challenges.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that, with all the political efforts being made against them, and with the changing nature of labor in America, that unions have been hurting for membership recently. How badly they’ve been hurting, though, has just recently come into focus.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number of union members in the workforce fell by 400,000 last year, to 14.3 million. This represents just 11.3% of the working population, the lowest level since 1916.

In addition to political moves in several states, unions are on the decline as a result of manufacturing employers choosing to build plants in nonunion states, and because of employment growth in retail and restaurants, where there is little or no union presence. Workers who are more transient and less likely to spend their whole careers at one employer are also less likely to join unions.

The news is even worse for private sector unions, where just 6.6% of workers are part of unions, down from 6.9% in 2011. This number peaked at 35% in the 1950s.

The long decline in union membership has many wondering if the labor movement is doomed. Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, said:

“These numbers are very discouraging for labor unions.It’s a time for unions to stop being clever about excuses for why membership is declining, and it’s time to figure out how to devise appeals to the workers out there.”

The chief economist for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. said that while some numbers were discouraging, union membership was actually up in California, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas, as well as among Latinos and Asian-Americans.

Still, few people are arguing that unions are currently in a good position, and it’s going to be an uphill battle in this political and economic climate for them to make their case.

— Benjamin Nanamaker, InvestorPolitics Editor

The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.

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