Union Membership Rates Continue Slide

Published March 1, 2006

The percentage of American workers who belong to a labor union continues to slide, according to an annual report released in January by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2005, 12.46 percent of wage and salary workers nationwide were union members–the lowest percentage in decades–down from 12.52 percent in 2004. While the number of union members grew, the growth failed to keep pace with the number of new jobs nationwide.

“Membership is stagnant despite massive restructuring within organized labor,” said Michael Reitz, director of labor policy for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF) in Olympia, Washington.

Decline Is Leveling off

The nation’s union membership has declined from 20.1 percent of all workers in 1983, the first year the federal government began tracking this data. The rate of decline has leveled off somewhat after high rates of decline in the past several years.

Hence, some union officials hailed 2005’s all-time low with optimism. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement he was “pleased,” citing the increase of 213,000 union members in the past year. “In a political climate that’s hostile to workers’ rights, these numbers illustrate the extraordinary will of workers to gain a voice on the job despite enormous obstacles,” Sweeney said.

Other union officials were more restrained. “The good news is that the annual hemorrhaging of union membership slowed last year. And that’s not really good news,” said Teamsters’ President James Hoffa in a statement.

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 31 states had union density rates (percentage of union members to total wage earners) below the national average in 2005, and 19 states had higher rates. In five states, union density was over 20 percent: New York (26.1 percent), Hawaii (25.8 percent), Alaska (22.8 percent), and Michigan and New Jersey (20.5 percent each). South Carolina and North Carolina ranked the lowest at 2.3 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively.

Government Unions Grow

A significant trend in organized labor is the growth of public-sector unions. While union density in private industries is low (only 7.8 percent of workers), government workers are heavily unionized, at 36.5 percent. More and more, state and local governments are ceding their policymaking authority to the collective bargaining process, Reitz said.

Free-market advocates see this as a problem.

“Increasingly, unions are little more than agitators for big government,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform in Washington, D.C. “When the majority of union members come from the beehive cubicles of government bureaucracy, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that higher taxes, more government, and more dues-paying bureaucrats are good for increasingly desperate union bosses.”

Young Workers Reject Unions

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report also examined demographic trends in union membership, the findings of which are particularly alarming for union officials. Young workers are far less likely than those in any other age category to be unionized. In 2005, only 4.6 percent of workers aged 16-24 were unionized. The rate was 10.7 percent for workers aged 25-34. The age group with the highest rate of growth among union members is those 65 years and older.

Reitz blames this on labor’s inability to adapt to today’s economy.

“Union officials are still making calls from a 50-year-old playbook written for this generation’s grandparents,” said Reitz. “Organized labor will continue to hemorrhage members so long as it spends hundreds of millions in member dues on political activity and uses heavy-handed organizing tactics.”

Tactics Raise Workers’ Ire

Reitz cited Washington state as an example.

Public-sector unions there recently negotiated collective bargaining agreements on behalf of state employees. Those contracts included a provision requiring workers to pay dues as a condition of employment. Public employee unions immediately increased their membership, but they aroused considerable ire among state workers who had no intention of joining. Several state workers are preparing a class-action lawsuit in response. (See “Union Demands Wash. Workers Be Fired,” Budget & Tax News, February 2006.)

The Change to Win federation’s highly publicized split from the AFL-CIO last year centered on the question of how to reverse organized labor’s shrinking numbers. The federation includes the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Union of Needle and Industrial Textile Employees-Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (UNITE-HERE), United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Laborers’ International Union of North America, Teamsters Union, and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

Reitz questions whether the strategy is working.

“For years, union membership has been kept afloat by coercion. The AFL-CIO split is little more than union officials rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Reitz said.

Bob Williams ([email protected]) is president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a public policy research organization based in Olympia, Washington.

For more information …

The 2005 Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report on union membership by is available online at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.toc.htm.