The great union shrinkage: Union membership lowest since 1930s

posted at 12:31 pm on January 24, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

Both public and private sector unionization declined in 2012, according to newly released Bureau of Labor Statistics data:

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.

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.

Reporters and experts attribute the decline to a couple different things. 1) Unions have been in steady decline since the ’70s. 2) The modern workplace accepts most of the conditions unions used to advocate for as givens— basic safety, fair work standards, and non-discrimination. 3) Shrinking unionized government work forces due to budget cuts and right-to-work laws. 4) Union members and potential union members feel like leadership has become unresponsive to their needs. 5) Unions can’t get young people to think they’re worth joining.

Certainly, in new right-to-work states, the drop-off is notable. Indiana became a right-to-work state in early 2012, after which employees were not compelled to give money to unions as a condition of employment:

Indiana became the first right-to-work state in the region in February 2012. Membership rates plummeted: About nine percent of state workers belonged to unions in 2012, down from 11.3 percent in 2011.

In Michigan, union membership had already fallen a percentage point even before the state passed a right-to-work law in late 2012:

The U.S. labor movement, including Michigan’s unionized work force, continues to diminish in size and clout as membership fell half a percent in 2012 to levels not seen since the 1930s, according to data released Wednesday.

The state had 629,000 unionized workers in 2012 or 16.6% of the work force, compared to 671,000, or 17.1%, in 2011. That is a far cry from 1.2 million members or 40% of the workforce in 1979.

Unions also have a generational problem. Young people, to a much greater degree, are comfortable with frequent job changes or even switching careers. Even among my liberal friends, many of whom extracurricularly fight for union causes, almost none of them are unionized themselves (teachers and nurses are the notable exceptions). Almost none of them assume they’ll be with the same employer their whole lives, nor do they want to be. I’m trying to imagine an old, doughy union representative waltzing into the ping-pong room at a tech start-up and telling all the young, idealistic liberals therein they must pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for the privilege of being represented by him. Ha.

Pennsylvania shows a similar trend as a Republican lawmaker prepares to bring a right-to-work bill to the floor there. Right-to-work bills have been defeated repeatedly in Pennsylvania, which if it passed one, would make it the first Northeastern state to do so:

The number of union members in the state shrank from 14.6 percent of the workforce to 13.5 percent. Nationally, membership declined from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent as cash-strapped state and local governments shed workers and unions had difficulty organizing new members in the private sector.

Union organizers in the Keystone State hope to defeat the bill in the short term, and for a return to the economy of the past in the long term. I’m pretty sure President Obama promised that return for four years. Here’s hoping for the next four, I guess?

Rick Bloomingdale, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president, says the federal figures reflect the loss of about 50,000 union members in the state. He said the labor federation would continue working to expand membership.

“Hopefully, we’ll see it come back in manufacturing and other … middle-class sustaining jobs,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest problem for unions, though, is that new jobs being created (such that they are) are in non-union sectors. The absence of unions subtracts overhead, frees up capital for more hiring and risk-taking, and ultimately gives brand-new businesses more flexibility to thrive and grow.

But hey, they’re still out there winning hearts and minds:

More than 110,000 children have had to find new ways to class since most drivers walked out on Wednesday in a dispute between their union and the city. None have been more profoundly affected than the tens of thousands of special-needs children and their parents, who tend to travel the longest distances, and for whom even walking out the door can be a challenge.

“This is catastrophic,” said Rachel Howard, director of Resources for Children with Special Needs, a nonprofit organization. “The more vulnerable and severely disabled the child, the more catastrophic it is.”

Front page photo courtesy of Michael Ramirez.

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Which is why there will be card check, a stacked NLRB that will rubber stamp union bosses wishes, and people will be FORCED to join whether they wish or not.

Unions exist to transfer money directly from paychecks to the democrat party. They haven’t served any other purpose in 50 years.

wildcat72 on January 24, 2013 at 12:33 PM

Doesn’t this go without saying? Fewer workers = fewer union members.

DanaSmiles on January 24, 2013 at 12:35 PM

Don’t think for a minute I didn’t see what you did there MKH!

Bmore on January 24, 2013 at 12:37 PM

The people getting hired don’t need a union to keep their job. The people that need unions to keep their jobs are the same people who can’t find a job in this economy. So, no surprise that new workers don’t want anything to do with a union.

besser tot als rot on January 24, 2013 at 12:38 PM

Indiana became a right-to-work state in early 2012, after which employees were not compelled to give money to unions as a condition of employment:

Yep, “compelled”. Workers don’t give up money willingly without a perceived benefit accruing to them.

Who knew that “workers” were capitalistic buggers!

GarandFan on January 24, 2013 at 12:38 PM

I’m trying to imagine an old, doughy union representative waltzing into the ping-pong room at a tech start-up and telling all the young, idealistic liberals therein they must pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for the privilege of being represented by him. Ha.

A funny thought indeed.

After an entire academic careeer of being told how bright they are, this guy comes in and tells them “pay up”

Jabberwock on January 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Don’t worry–a drop in union membership is one of those “problems” Barry thinks the government can fix just fine.

You know, like every other problem Our Lord And Savior defines as a problem.

#cardcheck

MidniteRambler on January 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Thank you president Obama, no thanks to GOP.

lester on May 26, 2012 at 2:57 PM

Chuck Schick on January 24, 2013 at 12:48 PM

A funny thought indeed.

After an entire academic careeer of being told how bright they are, this guy comes in and tells them “pay up”

Jabberwock on January 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

The IT/tech industry is the newest and also by far LEAST unionized.

I’ve never belonged to a union and I never will.

wildcat72 on January 24, 2013 at 12:49 PM

Don’t worry–a drop in union membership is one of those “problems” Barry thinks the government can fix just fine.

You know, like every other problem Our Lord And Savior defines as a problem.

#cardcheck

MidniteRambler on January 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Just wait until the Executive Order, nah, “Executive Action”, that’s the new Hotness right… where LORD Barry Soetoro outlaws “right to work”.

In their universe there is no right to work… unless you are paying union dues to the democrat party.

wildcat72 on January 24, 2013 at 12:51 PM

While union membership may have decreased, it didn’t stop them from spending $500 million on the Obama campaign.

I wouldn’t care how many union members there are if they would pass a law saying no union money can go towards any political policies, political candidates or current politicians including presidents.

Spread the money out towards the union members on programs that will benefit them.

plutorocks on January 24, 2013 at 12:51 PM

After an entire academic careeer of being told how bright they are, this guy comes in and tells them “pay up”

Jabberwock on January 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Not just an academic career. These are the people who were getting participation ribbons and nothing but affirmations of their excellence from the time they were three.

Happy Nomad on January 24, 2013 at 12:52 PM

Right-to-work bills have been defeated repeatedly in Pennsylvania

For some reason the democratic ideal of being pro-choice seems at odds with being pro-union. This choice thing is hard to follow. Sometimes I get to choose, and other times the government gets to choose for me. I’m sure it will make sense eventually.

STL_Vet on January 24, 2013 at 12:53 PM

But we are replacement them with welfare receiptants. They are the new election block, the free loaders.

Oil Can on January 24, 2013 at 12:53 PM

Union Thug: “Sign here.”

Skeptical Employee: “What does it cost me?”

Union Thug: “You understand what happens if you don’t pay?”

Skeptical Employee: “What are the advantages of joining?”

Union Thug: “You ever hear of Jimmy Hoffa? Just sayin’.”

perroviejo on January 24, 2013 at 12:57 PM

UNION FULL EMPLOYMENT PLAN……OBAMACARE.

Union membership is set to soar in the U.S. and you can thank the Sun King Baracka I and his “big effin’ deal” buddy Joe Biden.

It’s all good for unions now. Full Speed ahead now all the Union needs to do is help turn TEXAS blue and the gop corpse will finally be buried.

PappyD61 on January 24, 2013 at 12:58 PM

The same job/career/employer for all my life?

Doesn’t that assume that I will have no personal growth from the day I leave HS/Uni until the day I retire?

Sheesh, what a craptacular life they want me to have.

Snowblind on January 24, 2013 at 1:03 PM

One of the reasons is the simple cost of union membership. $20 every two weeks adds up. And no one believes that the union chiefs do not abuse spending.

pat on January 24, 2013 at 1:08 PM

OT: Take 5 minutes to read ace’s takedown of Salon’s 911 truther article. And read the comments. I am still laughing.

http://minx.cc/?blog=86&post=336837#c20045140

can_con on January 24, 2013 at 1:09 PM

One of the reasons is the simple cost of union membership. $20 every two weeks adds up. And no one believes that the union chiefs do not abuse spending.

pat on January 24, 2013 at 1:08 PM

Just the political spending along would be enough to make me angry, were I in a field that were unionized.

STL_Vet on January 24, 2013 at 1:12 PM

A rare bit of good news for the economy!

thuja on January 24, 2013 at 1:28 PM

It’s not the number of members that matter, it’s the number of votes each member casts in an election that’s important.

fogw on January 24, 2013 at 1:37 PM

Even among my liberal friends, many of whom extracurricularly fight for union causes, almost none of them are unionized themselves . . .

And that, in a nutshell, is why no one should take comfort in the decline in union membership. All the young liberals in the family are just as exercised over right to work legislation as a union boss, even though they wouldn’t be caught dead in a union job. It’s classic knee jerk–Republicans want it, it must be bad. As union membership declines, they argue that it is the dirty work of Republicans “suppressing” unions just the way they suppress voter turnout. It motivates them even more. Sigh.

2ndMAW68 on January 24, 2013 at 1:39 PM

In California unions are gaining members, mostly low paid Latinos.

We are Venezuela now.

PattyJ on January 24, 2013 at 1:54 PM

Shrinkage? I was in the pool!

Galtian on January 24, 2013 at 2:17 PM

Reporters and experts attribute the decline to a couple different things. 1) Unions have been in steady decline since the ’70s. 2) The modern workplace accepts most of the conditions unions used to advocate for as givens— basic safety, fair work standards, and non-discrimination. 3) Shrinking unionized government work forces due to budget cuts and right-to-work laws. 4) Union members and potential union members feel like leadership has become unresponsive to their needs. 5) Unions can’t get young people to think they’re worth joining.

And they’re ticking off a lot of Conservatives because most of them give to Dem candidates and causes, and people who believe in an honest day’s work and want a chance to get ahead are sick of the shirkers as well as the inertia of the entire system.

On the other hand, folks are willing to accept just about any kind of pay these days, which I don’t think is good for our economic system as a whole. And if they don’t want to work for those wages, they’ll just get disability or unemployment, and we’re pretty much back to dragging down the economy.

Dr. ZhivBlago on January 24, 2013 at 3:34 PM

Don’t think for a minute I didn’t see what you did there MKH!

Bmore on January 24, 2013 at 12:37 PM

lol

+1

(and it WAS cold…ok?)

Tim_CA on January 24, 2013 at 3:48 PM