Protesters at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison in 2011. The nation’s labor unions suffered sharp declines in membership last year, led by losses in the public sector as cash-strapped state and local governments laid off workers and limited collective bargaining rights.

Andy Manis, Associated Press

U.S. union membership hits 90-year low point

  • New York Times
  • January 23, 2013 - 11:28 PM

The long decline in the number of U.S. workers belonging to labor unions accelerated sharply last year, according to data reported Wednesday, sending the unionization rate to its lowest level in close to a century.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the total number of union members fell by 400,000 last year, to 14.3 million, even though the nation's overall employment rose by 2.4 million nationwide. The percentage of workers in unions fell to 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, the bureau found in its annual report on union membership. That brought unionization to its lowest level since 1916, when it was 11.2 percent, according to a study by Rutgers economists Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin.

There were several reasons for the steep one-year decline, according to labor experts. Among the factors were new laws that rolled back the power of unions in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states, the continued expansion by manufacturers like Boeing and Volkswagen in nonunion states and the growth of sectors like retail and restaurants, where unions have little presence.

"These numbers are very discouraging for labor unions," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "It's a time for unions to stop being clever about excuses for why membership is declining, and it's time to figure out how to devise appeals to the workers out there."

Labor unions have boasted of their successes in helping re-elect President Obama and in helping Democrats pick up seats in Congress.

But the figures announced by the bureau point to grave problems for organized labor's future. The portion of private sector workers in unions fell to just 6.6 percent last year, from 6.9 percent in 2011, causing some labor experts to question whether private sector unions were sinking toward irrelevance. Private sector union membership peaked at around 35 percent in the 1950s.

The report showed particular drops in union membership in two groups where unions have long been strong: local government employees and manufacturing workers.

Union membership showed sharp drops in Wisconsin, which passed a law in 2011 curbing the collective bargaining rights of many public employees, and in Indiana, which enacted a right-to-work law last February that might have prompted many workers to drop their union membership.

Such laws bar requiring employees at unionized workplaces from being made to pay union dues or fees. The bureau's report showed that union membership fell by 13 percent last year in Wisconsin and by 18 percent in Indiana -- both unusually large drops for a single year.

Barry Hirsch, a labor economist at Georgia State University, said an analysis he conducted found that the number of government employees in Wisconsin belonging to a union slid by 48,000 last year, to 139,000 from 187,000, as many public sector workers evidently decided to quit their unions after the Republican-led Legislature stripped them of most of their bargaining rights.

Speaking about the nation, Hirsch said, "I am really surprised that the drop in unionization was as large as it is in a single year, and it was particularly big in the public sector. It does seem you are seeing reductions in some of the states that you might expect."

For instance, in Indiana, where the right-to-work law took effect last March, unionization dropped to 9.1 percent from 11.3 percent in 2011. Michigan enacted a similar law last month.

The bureau said public sector union membership -- long a labor stronghold -- fell to 35.9 percent in 2012, from 37 percent the previous year. The number of government workers in unions fell by 234,000, as many teachers, police officers and others lost their jobs. There were 7.3 million public employees in unions, compared with 7 million private sector workers.

William Spriggs, the AFL-CIO's chief economist, took a more upbeat approach to the report, noting that the bureau had found increased union membership in California, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.

"It's not a simple story that we don't have our act together," Spriggs said. "I would be more concerned if union membership was down among Latinos and Asian-Americans, because that's a growing demographic, but it's up."

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