A Bad Year for Unions

It hasn’t been a good year for American organized labor. Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual estimate of union membership in the United States. The graphic below summarizes the major trends, drawing on the work of Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson (www.unionstats.com) and John Schmitt, Janelle Jones, and Milla Sanes at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (who offer further breakdowns by state and sector).

A few things stand out. First, we see no break in the unrelenting decline in union power and presence. The national economy has shed about 3.3 million union jobs since 1983, more than a third of those disappearing in the last recession (since 2007), and just under 400,000 between 2011 and 2012 alone. Private sector union membership, which reached over a third of all workers in the early postwar era, has shriveled to 6.6 percent. Globalization, technological change, and recession have played a part in this, but the losses are much starker in the United States than in other settings experiencing the same economic pressures. What sets the United States apart, as Kris Warner, John Schmitt, and others have pointed out, is a regime of state and federal labor law that makes it hard to form or sustain unions, and easier to get rid of them.

Second, we see wide variations across states. Union numbers are shaped by both patterns of economic growth and the density of union membership or coverage. Not surprisingly, private sector losses are starkest in rust-belt states (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana) marked by both deindustrialization and slow population growth. And scattered gains can be found in states adding population (even if the rate of union membership is flat or falling).

Third, we are beginning to see the combined effects of recent attacks on public sector unions and austerity budgets. Nationally, we lost over 230,000 public sector union members between 2011 and 2012. The losses are notably stark in those states (Wisconsin, down 48,000; Ohio, down 37,000) in which Republican governors have taken the offensive against public workers and their bargaining rights.

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