Union membership falls to record low of 10.3 percent

The percentage of salaried workers in labor unions fell 0.2 points in 2019 to a record low of 10.3 percent, almost half the 20.3 percent rate in 1983 and a 2-point drop from a decade earlier, according to data the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released Wednesday.

Membership in unions, a key base of support for Democrats, remained significantly higher in the public sector, where local unions for police, teachers and firefighters helped push rates up to 33.6 percent, compared with just 6.2 percent in the private sector.

With $1,095 in median weekly earnings, union workers out-earned nonunion workers’ median $892 salaries by 22.7 percent.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, said the decline followed naturally from anti-labor policies in the Trump administration.

“The decline in union density is not surprising. Despite the talk of a boom economy, the climate for organizing has become much more hostile in the last year under the openly anti-union Trump NLRB,” she said.

Declines in unionization, she added, were concentrated among white private sector workers.

According to the data, older workers were more likely to be unionized than younger workers by a 4-point margin, while men were more likely to be in unions than women by a 1.1-point margin.

BLS found that over half of all the nation’s 14.6 million union members were concentrated in just seven states, even though those states only accounted for a third of the workforce.

Those states included California with 2.5 million unionized workers, New York with 1.7 million, Illinois with 0.8 million, Pennsylvania with 0.7 million, and New Jersey, Ohio and Washington, each with 0.6 million.

The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest union group, argued that unions were on the up-and-up despite the drop in numbers.

“The numbers reflect both the tremendously difficult barriers workers seeking to form a union continue to face and the unmatched resilience of working people in our desire to win bargaining power on the job,” said AFL-CIO acting Communications Director Tim Schlittner.

Schlittner pointed to successful teacher strikes, a 50,000-worker General Motors strike, and unionization efforts by graduate students leading to higher wages and benefits as markers of the enduring strength of unions.

The Center for Union Facts, an anti-union group, pointed to the United Auto Workers as a reason for falling membership, noting a federal corruption probe that ensnared 12 top union officials with allegations of corruption and fraud.

“In the last year, the union failed to win an election in the South, launched a controversial strike that ended with a contract almost half of UAW members voted against, and let’s not forget the ongoing corruption scandal at the union, which has resulted in federal charges against 13 officials,” said Charlyce Bozzello, the group’s communications director.

The GM contract was approved by 57.2 percent of members.

“The UAW has become a case study of why not to join a union, and workers are clearly taking notice,” she added.   

But public support for unions has only grown in recent years.

Gallup polls in August found union approval at 64 percent, near a 50-year high.

Tags AFL–CIO Center for Union Facts Trade unions
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