Unions suffer sharp decline in membership

Union membership plummeted last year to the lowest level since the 1930s as cash-strapped state and local governments shed workers and unions had difficulty organizing new members in the private sector despite signs of an improving economy.
Associated Press
Jan 24, 2013


Government figures released Wednesday showed union membership declined from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent of the workforce, another blow to a labor movement already stretched thin by battles in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other states to curb bargaining rights and weaken union clout.

Overall membership fell by about 400,000 workers to 14.4 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half the loss, about 234,000, came from government workers including teachers, firefighters and public administrators.

But unions also saw losses in the private sector even as the economy created 1.8 million new jobs in 2012. That membership rate fell from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent, a troubling sign for the future of organized labor, as job growth generally has taken place at nonunion companies.

"To employers, it's going to look like the labor movement is ready for a knockout punch," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "You can't be a movement and get smaller."

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.

Losses in the public sector are hitting unions particularly hard because that has been one of the few areas where membership had grown over the past two decades. About 51 percent of union members work in government, where the rate of union membership is 37 percent, which is more than five times higher than in the private sector.

Until recently, there had been little resistance to unions organizing government workers. But that began to change when Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin signed a law in 2011 eliminating most union rights for government workers. The state lost about 46,000 union members last year, the vast majority in the public sector.

The recession that began in 2008 also led to much deeper cuts in state and local government than any previous recession, according to a report this month from the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany. Since August 2008, state government employment has declined by 135,000, while local government employment fell by 546,000.

Despite the steady membership decline, unions remain a potent political force because of the money they spend helping union-friendly candidates seeking public office. Unions spent more than $400 million during the 2012 election cycle to support President Barack Obama's re-election, keep a Democratic majority in the Senate and aid other state and local candidates.

But as more governors and state lawmakers target unions, labor leaders have been forced to spend more money fighting political skirmishes and less on organizing new members.

"Organizing is very expensive, and it gets fought now in the public sector as well as in the private sector," said Barry Hirsch, a labor economist at Georgia State University.

Dwindling membership means unions carry far less influence than they used to in setting a benchmark for wages and benefits that might be followed at nonunion companies. Unions are already gearing up to defeat Republican governors in Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where they fear more anti-union measures could crop up soon.

Union officials blame membership losses on the lingering effects of the recession, as well as GOP governors and state lawmakers who have sought to weaken union rights.

"Our still-struggling economy, weak laws and political as well as ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership, and in the process have also imperiled economic security and good, middle class jobs," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

In Indiana, where a new right-to-work law took effect last March, the state lost about 56,000 union members. The law prohibits unions from requiring workers to pay union fees, even if they benefit from a collective bargaining agreement. Michigan lawmakers approved a similar measure in December.

Another problem for unions is an aging membership that is not being replaced by younger members. By age, the union membership rate was highest among workers age 55 to 64 (14.9 percent) and lowest among those 16 to 24 (4.2 percent).

In New York, the state with the highest union density, nearly one-quarter of the workforce belonged to a union. North Carolina had the lowest at 2.9 percent.

Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members in 2012 had median weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members earned $742.



Dinghy Gal

Oh really? I wonder why.

Just Thinkin

Well one reason could be once you retire after 30 plus years of supporting them they stop taking care of you. and the second might be the fools they support for President !

looking around

What union did you belong to? I've been retired over ten years, my union still does a pretty good job looking after my interests. If it were not for the union you may have not been able to retire after thirty years.


The only union I wanna join: The Taxpayers Union.

Strike, strike, strike!!!!


yep, join the "let the govt take care of me union"!


Unions need to evolve from what they used to be. The union I am a member of, in the building trades, doesn't get much involved in politics. They mainly do insurance, hiring hall, apprenticeships, training, continuing ed or certifications, and contract work. They only deal with politics with seperate donations, they CAN'T use dues nor the money they take from each paycheck, which is only used for benefits for the members. If they want to donate to politicians they have to get seperate checks sent in, not use union funds. This type of unions are what would actually work, as I said the unions need to evolve with the times.

Mr Bean

Grumpy, you need to get a life----


Wait. There's only 14 and a half million union members in the country? Talk about a disproportionate influence!

Dinghy Gal, you "wonder why" union membership is declining? Yeah, me neither. :-)

Grumpy, your union sounds like one I'd actually support. THAT'S what unions are supposed to be, NOT political strong-arm (and workplace strong-arm) or bad/lazy employee protection rackets!


grumpy....that is what a union is supposed to be about, but as usual, when money gets involved and special interests get involved.....unions are no different than liberals who hate on wall st.



The Wisc. unions came at Gov. Walker and were handed a defeat AGAIN:


The Big Dog's back

So 11.3% of the labor force is the cause of all our problems. Yeah, right.

BW1's picture

And yet you'll turn around tomorrow and give them all the credit for ALL of our standards of living.


Maybe the UAW should insist on building the cars only with American parts. Then an American car can be an American car. And membership may increase.

BW1's picture

Plenty of non UAW cars ARE built only with American parts - by HONDA. Ohio built Hondas have some of the highest domestic content numbers in the industry. In fact, every V6 engine block that ever went into a Saturn Vue was cast by Honda in their Ana, OH foundry, with no UAW involvement.


Honda takes good care of its people.
The Americans?....ya' gotta have a union.


ewg.org A different form of welfare.

Mr Bean

Think about this----since Obama was elected in 2008--400,000 government jobs have been added--mostly union---therefore the actual private sector union losses are greater.

Don S

Right now the smug scabs/nonunion workers that took the jobs of union workers, that lost their jobs, due to law changes, but when management reduces their pay, eliminates benefits, and fires them(for no reason), then they will have no options and will scream they were treated unfair, then and only then these scabs will know the importance of the union movement. It's just too bad that it will take years for this to come about, but it is sure will come. As sure that the sun will rise every morning. The rich and corporations will do what ever, to beat the workers down and down again, so they can make larger and larger profits in their pockets. Much like our congress is doing now.

BW1's picture

blah blah blah, more agitprop.
89% of the workforce are happily standing on their merit as individuals, rather than relying on marxist agreements NOT to compete. It's called believing in oneself - you should try it sometime.