Green Room

Are Unions Literally Dying Off?

posted at 4:27 pm on January 30, 2012 by

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership and if you squinted really hard, you could find some good news for labor organizations in it. There were 49,000 additional union members in 2011, and the unionization rate fell only one-tenth of a percentage point, to 11.8 percent of the total workforce.

Most of us would be hard-pressed to find cheer in a chart that looks like this one

…but AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka tried anyway:

Despite an unprecedented volley of partisan political attacks on workers’ rights and the continuing insecurity of our economic crisis, union membership increased slightly last year. Working men and women want to come together and to improve their lives.

The AFL-CIO boasted of the 15,000 new members in the 16-to-24 age group, while failing to notice that number is down more than 200,000 from just four years ago. The leftist publication In These Times saw the BLS numbers as a mixed bag, and commented they “give little hint of the future.”

On the contrary, the numbers give us a rather large hint of the future, and herald a slow, lingering death for unions of all types without a change in organizing strategy.

The Baby Boomers naturally have comprised the bulk of the U.S. workforce for many years. As the workforce has aged, you would expect union membership to age as well. However, an examination of the last ten years of data reveals that union membership is aging at an accelerated rate relative to the rest of the workforce.

In 2001, 6.3 percent of union members were below that age of 25. Last year, only 5 percent were. That’s not encouraging, but the other end of the spectrum is truly alarming.

In 2001, 14 percent of union members were 55 years of age or older. Last year, 23.3 percent were. Almost half a million working union members are 65 or older. During the last 10 years, not only did unions lose more than 1.5 million members, but 1.1 million additional members entered the 55-and-over age group.

This creates a demographic storm that unions have not faced in recent memory. Over several decades they have been unable to increase membership at the same rate as the growing workforce. Now, even as the overall size of the workforce slows or stalls, they will find themselves needing to grow at a rate to replace retiring and deceased members.

The aging union membership would also seem to be a sign that battles over retirement, health care and seniority will become more bitter and difficult in the short term, since a growing segment of the union population sees these as primary issues.

If, however, the focus on the needs and desires of the older members comes at the expense of younger members, or potential members, the unions essentially may retire themselves out of existence.

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I want a national right to work law. I don’t want any unions in government jobs. And while I’m dreaming, I want a national school choice provision (helping students and hurting teachers unions). Oh and I want a redo on the automaker bailout preference for unions above bond holders deal. Then throw in some more opt out of the political dues part of union membership even if you are in a union. And when I look at that, and what little Republicans in office do, it seems to me that Republicans neither want to win nor care about our economy.

AnotherOpinion on January 30, 2012 at 4:50 PM

You could also have right-to-work companies. Designated non-union by the owners… if you want union go work somewhere else.

HopeHeFails on January 30, 2012 at 5:07 PM

15,000 new members in the 16-24 group, eh? Tell me, just how many of those 15,000 got to decide whether they joined the union?

Mr. Prodigy on January 30, 2012 at 5:40 PM

Couldn’t have happened to a nicer group of thugs.

Dominion on January 30, 2012 at 5:46 PM

15,000 new members in the 16-24 group, eh? Tell me, just how many of those 15,000 got to decide whether they joined the union?

Mr. Prodigy on January 30, 2012 at 5:40 PM

Indeed. I would love to see someone try to calculate just what fraction of union funds come from people who, if they had a choice, would rather not pay them. You can count me in that percentage.

David Shane on January 30, 2012 at 7:14 PM

Far as I’m concerned all the unions can drop dead.Especially the ones here in Ca.

jeffinsjvca on January 30, 2012 at 7:47 PM

The “23% of union members over 55 years old” means that union membership will likely drop by about 25% in the next decade. That, along with a (hopefully) growing workforce, will mean that union membership will decrease as a percentage of the total workforce even more.

Agreed that unions are on their way out. We just need to be careful to defuse all of their last-gasp Balrog-esque lashing out.

Mohonri on January 30, 2012 at 9:46 PM

“Look for the Union label.”

And then run the other way!

squint on January 30, 2012 at 10:02 PM

Unions outside of government are dying off, mainly because they are killing the companies they work for.

But unions of government workers are not endangered at this time. (The states they work for are in trouble, but the unions themselves aren’t going anywhere.)

Steven Den Beste on January 30, 2012 at 11:16 PM

Having been a union member and contractor in construction, unions do have a constructive role there. Their training is excellent if like anything else you want to learn. It does take training to do commercial construction and there needs to be a place to hire trained people. Some skills take years to learn.

That said any union which does not have internal training I really don’t see a purpose for. If unions don’t learn to compete with skilled labor at a competitive price in the free market place they will certainly die a natural death.

BullShooterAsInElk on January 30, 2012 at 11:40 PM

I hope so.

I had to “cross” the picket line once. I am in IT, and not in a union (and won’t ever be), and those bastages made us sit at the gate and inch through every 30 seconds for weeks. I was driving 2 1/2 hours to work Monday morning, working 10 hour days, staying away from my husband as a newlywed the entire week every week, then 2 1/2 hours home, and had to put up with their crap. We had to put neon pink signs in our cars asking “may I enter the premises?” I kept my windows rolled up and sang to the radio, which psssed them off more, because I didn’t look at their whiny signs. What a joke.

cptacek on January 31, 2012 at 1:51 AM

I would be very curious to see that graph with data added to show 1) Government union membership for the same time period, and 2) The overall mix of private vs. public employee union membership.

VastRightWingConspirator on January 31, 2012 at 4:00 PM

Government union membership has held relatively steady, so that there are now more public employees in unions than there are private employees in unions – even though, obviously, the private sector is much larger.

Mike Antonucci on January 31, 2012 at 10:16 PM

Unions are only slightly more screwed than the rest of us. The demographic steamroller that’s flattening them is aimed straight for the rest of America.

I admit a certain amount of schadenfreude at this, but in reality it’s like saying “their end of the boat is sinking faster.”

Gearbox on January 31, 2012 at 10:28 PM