The percentage of American workers belonging to labor unions has sunk to a nearly century-old low, representing the changing dynamics of the nation’s workforce and the consequences of a headlong rush by lawmakers to adopt “pro-business” economic polices.
Organized labor has come under assault by legislators from Capitol Hill to statehouses across the country in a unified campaign to not only curb the political influence of unions but to literally decapitate the labor movement and starve it into oblivion. Not since the labor unrest that ruptured after the turn of the 20th century and led to many of the rights and regulations protecting workers even today has the existence of unions been threatened as it is in 2013.
New figures from the federal government paint a startling picture of the decline in the raw numbers of union members in America today. The number of union members dropped by nearly half-a-million last year, helping to drop the total percentage of workers belonging to unions to its lowest figure since 1916.
The long decline in the number of American workers belonging to labor unions accelerated sharply last year, according to data reported on Wednesday, sending the unionization rate to its lowest level in close to a century.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the total number of union members fell by 400,000 last year, to 14.3 million, even though the nation’s overall employment rose by 2.4 million. The percentage of workers in unions fell to 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, the bureau found in its annual report on union membership. That brought unionization to its lowest level since 1916, when it was 11.2 percent, according to a study by two Rutgers economists, Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin.
Driving the decline in membership is not just the tiny fraction of private sector employees who are union members, as that figure has always been relatively small. More surprising is that last year’s sudden drop in union membership came mostly from public workers and the manufacturing sector, two long-time union strongholds.
But the figures announced by the bureau point to grave problems for the future of organized labor. The portion of private sector workers in unions fell to just 6.6 percent last year, from 6.9 percent in 2011, causing some labor specialists to question whether private sector unions were sinking toward irrelevance. Private sector union membership peaked at around 35 percent in the 1950s.
The report showed particular drops in union membership in two groups where unions have long been strong: local government employees and manufacturing workers.
Union membership showed sharp drops in Wisconsin, which passed a law in 2011 curbing the collective bargaining rights of many public employees, and in Indiana, which enacted a right-to-work law last February that may have prompted many workers to drop their union membership.
While some of the decline in manufacturing union members can be attributed to the familiar scourge of outsourcing, that cannot be ascribed blame for the withering labor union rolls among government employees.
Specifically, as Jim Tankersley writes in the Washington Post, the culprit is a toxic mix of unprecedented legislative maneuvers by conservative lawmakers in several states to punish unions, along with the broader economic policies of austerity among state and local governments. Between new laws that attack labor’s base and fiscal austerity that is consistently eliminating workers via layoffs, public-sector unions are being decimated.
The new twist is what drove the decline in 2012, which is really a story about how unions have changed. The big culprit for last year’s drop doesn’t appear to be outsourcing (though union factory employment has fallen since the recession, while non-union employment has risen). The issue was austerity.
Specifically, state and local governments laid off a lot of workers last year to help balance their budgets. That means they let a lot of union members go. The Labor Department reports that more than half of all U.S. union members work in the public sector; government is nearly 36 percent unionized, while the private-sector union membership rate is less than 7 percent. (Last year’s stats suggest that some Republican governors’ efforts to reduce unionization in their state public sectors is working – Wisconsin posted a 2.1 percentage point drop in union membership from 2011 to 2012.)
I asked several union officials to react to a preliminary estimate of these figures this month. Roundly, the officials said the drop in membership rates reflected a concerted attack on organized labor and an austerity hit to the economy that affects everyone, not just folks with a union card. They also struck some optimism about their efforts to reverse the trend, including moves to organize Latinos and other fast-growing demographic groups.
Indicative of the power that a combination of austerity and anti-labor legislative majorities have on shaping the course of organized labor in America is the sharp drop in the percentage of unionized workers in states where they have traditionally had significant economic and political influence. States heavy on government employees and with large manufacturing sectors have seen their union membership plummet.
In Michigan, Ohio and other “Rust Belt” manufacturing states, union members disappeared at nearly inconceivable rates. California now has a higher percentage of unionized workers than Michigan, the heart of the nation’s union-dominant auto industry.
Those two states, along with the well known anti-union agenda Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker, also happen to be at the center of nasty political fights led by Tea Party governors and lawmakers against organized labor. Michigan grabbed national headlines last December when its state legislature and Republican governor approved a “right to work” law that will likely further cripple the ability of employees to organize in the literal and spiritual home of the nation’s labor movement.
Nearly half of the states now are covered by “right to work” laws, with corporate interests and their political allies already using the situation in Michigan as a rallying cry to advance the controversial law across the rest of the country.
Laws that weaken the power of organized labor could spread to more U.S. states in 2013 after supporters of the measures scored a major victory over unions in Michigan this week, and earlier in the year in Indiana, experts said.
The next battles over what advocates term “right-to-work” laws could be neighboring Midwest states of Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican governors and legislatures have shown a willingness to take on the unions.
Missouri also could turn out to be the next flashpoint in efforts to end a “closed-shop” system that makes union membership a condition of employment.
Supporters say the new laws give workers the choice whether to join a union and pay dues. They also argue they encourage corporate investment. Critics say the laws undermine the basic tenet of union collective bargaining, suppress wages and strip workers of leverage to improve pay, benefits and conditions.
Michigan on Tuesday became the 24th of the 50 American states to enact such laws.
Another traditionally union-friendly manufacturing state may soon join Michigan in adopting the controversial law linked to lower wages and higher unemployment, with conservative lawmakers and a receptive “Tea Party” governor proposing a “right to work” bill in Pennsylvania.
While less and less of the nation’s population belongs to an organized labor union, Americans ignore the fading influence of labor at their own risk. With the US economy more competitive and lopsided in favor of business interests than ever before, the standards and regulations fought for by labor unions benefit every employee in the country. A list of the benefits and reforms achieved through labor action is lengthy and may surprise many Americans who take such items for granted.
36 Reasons Why You Should Thank a Union
All Breaks at Work, including your Lunch Breaks
Civil Rights Act/Title VII (Prohibits Employer Discrimination)
8-Hour Work Day
Child Labor Laws
Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA)
40 Hour Work Week
Worker’s Compensation (Worker’s Comp)
Workplace Safety Standards and Regulations
Employer Health Care Insurance
Collective Bargaining Rights for Employees
Wrongful Termination Laws
Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
Whistleblower Protection Laws
Employee Polygraph Protect Act (Prohibits Employer from using a lie detector test on an employee)
Veteran’s Employment and Training Services (VETS)
Compensation increases and Evaluations (Raises)
Sexual Harassment Laws
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
Employer Dental, Life, and Vision Insurance
Pregnancy and Parental Leave
The Right to Strike
Public Education for Children
Equal Pay Acts of 1963 & 2011 (Requires employers pay men and women equally for the same amount of work)
Laws Ending Sweatshops in the United States
Without a strong voice to fight for the rights of workers, every American with a job in the public and private sectors face new and financially painful consequences that interests pushing for laws to marginalize unions never publicly advertised. For instance, the demise of labor unions has coincided with the first multi-year drop in wages in decades, pushing down the take-home pay of all American workers, union and non-union.