Are Unions Literally Dying Off?
posted at 4:27 pm on January 30, 2012 by Mike Antonucci
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…
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.