Union Membership Continues Decline

Jan 23, 2013

Cross-posted from the Workforce Freedom Initiative’s blog.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics today released its annual survey of union membership for 2012. The 2012 report showed that the half-century decrease in union membership continued with an overall unionization rate of 11.3% of the workforce, compared with 11.8% in 2011. 

As this blog pointed out last year, union membership peaked in 1955 when nearly 35% of all workers in the United States belonged to a union.  Since then, the overall unionization rate has fallen by around two-thirds.  As has been the case for several years, public sector unionization continues to be the predominant reason that the overall membership number remains in double digits. 

With 35.9% of government employees in unions compared to 6.6% of the private sector workforce, more than half of all union members are now in the public sector, which certainly is not how things were in the 1950s.

Falling membership in the union movement has stirred a great deal of passion among labor leaders intent on reversing this trend. In a Los Angeles Times article last year, the head of the AFL-CIO discussed his views on why the vast majority of workers have abandoned unions and what he could do about it from his position.  Yet talk of “Wall Street” and corporate greed doesn’t get to the fundamental question of why unions are struggling to explain how they add value or enhance workers’ well being in the 21st century.  

Today’s employees tend to lead more dynamic careers, and it is increasingly rare that one would spend his or her entire working tenure with a single employer; indeed many people switch not just jobs, but also careers during their lifetimes.  In such cases, pledging allegiance and paying dues to a union with whom one has little particular affinity simply does not come as easily as it once did. More specifically, the downsides of inflexible union rules and attitudes seem to provide little incentive for workers or employers to embrace unions.  

The majority of union members now come from inside the halls of government, but that carries with it a problem that state and local officials — as well as taxpayers — across the country are now figuring out, namely that public sector unions have established a lucrative system of doling out campaign contributions to sympathetic politicians who then become “bargaining” partners.

By locking in favorable contracts with these governments, unions garner financial resources to perpetuate their own existence, but at a substantial cost to taxpayers who have seen their governments face budget shortfalls and sometimes even bankruptcy, which has prompted reform movements in a number of states.    

However, unions have found a friend in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and its partisan majority (now at three Democrats and zero Republicans), which has done its level best over the last few years to promote a lopsided agenda to facilitate unionization. The Board has attempted to give unions new tools to promote organizing, such as the Specialty Healthcare decision that lets organizers cherry-pick their own small bargaining units in workplaces. 

Ironically, the series of cases involving such “micro unions” underscores precisely the phenomenon reflected in today’s BLS report, which is that unions have had a difficult time convincing a full majority of employees at a workplace that joining a union would benefit them.  

While today’s report must make for somber reading among union leadership, it may well spark the NLRB to take even more drastic action.  That may give unions a short-term boost, but whether it can reverse a 50-year trend is open to question. 

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