Organized Labor Loses Members
Federal figures released Wednesday show the percentage of workers who belong to unions dropped to the lowest level since World War II in 2012, largely reflecting public-sector job losses and labor's continuing struggle to organize workers.
Unions lost 400,000 members last year, or about 2.8% of their total, and more than half of them were from the public sector, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. The percentage of workers in unions fell to 11.3% last year, from 11.8% in 2011—the biggest decline in six years.
Unions were hard-hit last year by trouble in the public sector, which has long been a bright spot for labor amid private-sector membership losses. Public-sector workers are still about five times more likely to be in a union than those in the private sector. The public-sector membership rate in 2012 dropped to 35.9%, from 37% in 2011, a steeper decline than the private-sector drop to 6.6% from 6.9% during the same period.
Union officials attribute the membership decline to the overall economy, the state-level collective-bargaining battles and outdated federal labor laws that they say make organizing too difficult.
In the past two years, cash-strapped states have eliminated public-sector jobs. Republican lawmakers have also led state initiatives aimed at scaling back collective-bargaining rights.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, backed a law in 2011 that eliminated many bargaining rights for public employees and gave workers the option to not pay dues or belong to unions. Wisconsin's union membership fell 13.5% in 2012, an early sign of how curbing collective-bargaining rights can weaken labor's muscle. Indiana showed a 18.5% drop in membership, which economists attributed in part to a 2012 right-to-work law.
Organizing activity has dwindled at most unions in recent years, while political efforts have used more of their resources. The Service Employees International Union, which has generally set the pace among unions for adding new members, said it organized 30,000 workers last year, fewer than in prior years.
In the public sector, education and public administration experienced big losses, in part a result of many teachers losing their jobs. In the private sector, manufacturing was a grim spot, with union membership and density declining despite a rise in employment. Construction, food manufacturing and steel plants also took hits, said the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning research organization.
The drop "is very much related to the loss of public-sector employment overall" and highlights the impact of the recession, said William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO labor federation. Mr. Spriggs said unions are succeeding in adding Hispanic members and workers in fast-growing sectors of the economy, such as parts of the private-sector health-care industry. The membership rate among Hispanics rose last year, while the rate for whites declined, the data showed.
Others said the numbers suggest unions aren't adding value to workers or employers and instead are inflating workplace costs. "The current business model isn't working," said James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The trend is going to continue," he added, citing aging members as one of many reasons.
The recent weakening of union rights in some states could begin to erode labor's political strength, some labor experts said. Public-sector unions are big backers of Democratic campaigns. "The decline in membership generates a weaker political position, and that leads to a situation where membership declines even more," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Labor officials on Wednesday called for stronger labor laws and an end to attacks on collective-bargaining rights, saying this would improve the economy and bolster the middle class.
"Union membership impacts every other economic outcome that matters to all workers," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, adding that unions are seeking innovative ways to organize workers and will be reaching out to young people and immigrants. Labor is pushing for an overhaul of immigration laws, which could boost its membership longer-term.
The Wisconsin state arm of the National Education Association, which lost 30,000 members, or 30%, since 2011, is reevaluating how to use fewer resources to represent workers, said spokeswoman Christina Brey.