The union membership rate stalled at a record low last year after suffering a decades-long decline, according to federal data released Friday.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found in its report that the union membership rate for wage and salary workers was unchanged from the year prior – sitting at 10.7 percent in 2017. The total number of unionized workers increased by 262,000 to 14.8 million. That increase wasn’t enough to push up the overall percentage of unionized workers.
The BLS has found that the union membership rate has been in decline since at least 1983. The union membership rate at the time was 20.1 percent at 17.7 million unionized workers. Since that time, the rate has steadily fallen – with a notable two-year bump starting around 2006.
Interestingly, while membership rates have declined, unions are still fairly popular. The Pew Research Center found in a survey last year that union favorability has been on the rise and now sits at 60 percent. Union favorability was only at 48 percent back in 2015.
Labor unions have the strongest presence when it comes to public-sector workers. The union membership rate for those workers remained steady at 34.4 percent. The public-sector rate was more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers at 6.5 percent.
The BLS report also highlights how the union membership rate breaks down among workers. Those that work in protective service, education, training, and libraries had the highest unionization rates. Men had a slightly higher union membership rate at 11.4 percent compared to women at 10.0 percent. Black workers are also more likely to be unionized than other races at 12.6 percent.
The declining membership rate goes back much further according to separate sources. The Congressional Research Service, the research arm of the legislature, found that the union membership rate peaked around 1955 – following a dramatic climb starting in the 1930s.
Former President Barack Obama saw the decline and worked to reverse it when he was in office. He argued numerous times that unions are critical to protecting workers. His administration implemented regulations to help bolster the number of unionized workers, but the downward trend continued.
President Donald Trump has not been as welcoming to labor unions despite building his agenda around workers. He has instead focused on helping workers through overall economic expansion and protectionism. Critics of the previous administration argued those reforms helped unions at the expense of both workers and employers.
“The larger trend is where the focus ought to be,” Center for Union Facts executive director Richard Berman told InsideSources. “The heart of the union movement was manufacturing, and manufacturing has suffered two events in the last half-century. One is outsourcing and the other is robots.”
Berman adds that those factors have reduced the amount of workers unions can potentially organize – adding that other union heavy industries like mining have experienced similar changes. Labor unions might also not be as appealing with how federal laws have codified many workplace protections and employer and employee relations have changed.
“Not as many people are interested because, quite frankly, management is more enlightened than it was in the 40s and 50s,” Berman said. “Jobs are not as dangerous, job environments are far more comfortable, people are working in air-conditioned environments, as opposed to oppressive environments, and there are a fewer amount of issues unions can use to sell people in terms of making the jobs better because management has made it better without the need for a union.”
Berman adds that there are also more subtle issues like people becoming more individualistic. Labor unions derive influence with collective action, but many workers may just decide to forge their own path. He also notes that labor unions have become less effective at organizing new workers with their focus on other things like politics.
Labor unions and their supporters have argued that the decline has hurt workers. Unions are often seen as being critical to advancing workplace rights and protections on behalf of workers. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found in a 2016 report that the decline has even resulted in lower wages for nonunion workers.
“Working class men have felt the decline in unionization the hardest,” Washington University sociologist Jake Rosenfeld, who co-authored the report, said at the time. “Their paychecks are noticeably smaller than if unions had remained as strong as they were almost 40 years ago. Rebuilding collective bargaining is one of the tools we have to reinvigorate wage growth, for low and middle-wage workers.”
The BLS report found that the typical nonunion worker will see a median weekly earnings of $829 – while unionized workers make $1,041 a week. The report does add that this doesn’t account for other factors that might explain the difference – including variations in the distributions of employees by occupation, industry, age, firm size, and geographic region.
Berman counters that the decline won’t really have an impact on the workforce considering how few workers are unionized anyway. He also notes that the number of union members has stayed fairly steady, with the decline arising primarily from a growing workforce. He notes established unions tend to be very difficult to get rid of once they’re in place.
“The trend has, quite frankly, leveled off to a point where it’s probably going to stay for quite some time unless the law changes,” Berman said. “They’ll continue to be a smaller percentage of the workforce as the workforce grows.”
Labor unions do face the possibility that federal law will change in a devastating way. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case on whether to ban mandatory union dues in the public-sector. House Republicans introduced a bill last year aimed at making union dues and fees optional for all workers.