Union membership continues long decline

Political assaults and huge public sector membership drops make for the lowest union density since the 1930s

By Natasha Lennard
January 24, 2013 1:53AM (UTC)
main article image

New numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that union membership continued to decline in 2012, reaching its lowest point since 1933. Losses in both public and private sector unions saw the total percentage of union density fall from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent last year. More than half the loss, the AP noted, "came from government workers including teachers, firefighters and public administrators," which accounted for a membership drop of 234,000.

The Koch-backed political assault against unions by both public and private sector has also gained ground in recent years, with state legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana voting through measures that weaken unions. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka released a statement in response to the new statistics, lamenting, "Working women and men urgently need a voice on the job today, but the sad truth is that it has become more difficult for them to have one, as today’s figures on union membership demonstrate.”


As MSNBC's Ned Resnikoff pointed out, despite decades of membership decline, unionized workers are still, on average, in better pay situations than their non-unionized counterparts. "According to the new BLS numbers, there remains a significant wage gap between union members and non-union workers: Median weekly earnings for union members came to $943, versus $742 for everyone else," Resnikoff wrote Wednesday, noting too that since the percentage of union members in the American workforce began its current decline in the 1970s, "American wages stopped their upward climb. Wages, adjusted to the consumer price index, have stagnated for the past forty years."

Labor writer Josh Eidelson, commenting on the Liberal (uppercase "L") bent of aspects of Obama's recent inaugural address, wrote in Jacobin that the president's words were, when it comes to workers, "heavy on individual uplift," light on labor activism. "Obama’s speech celebrated feminist activism, civil rights activism, and LGBT activism, but didn’t mention labor activism. That’s a noteworthy omission, not an accident of alliteration ... Rooting out prejudicial treatment among workers isn’t enough to end exploitation. And a call to arms against racism, sexism, and homophobia that treads lightly around the workplace has a very circumscribed form of social transformation in sight," Eidelson wrote.

And while organized labor coffers and campaigning helped Democrats win substantial electoral gains last November and in 2008, returns for their efforts have, as Eidelson notes, been mixed. And, as the latest statistics show, union membership just keeps dropping.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

MORE FROM Natasha LennardFOLLOW natashalennardLIKE Natasha Lennard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Labor Labor Rights Private Sector Public Sector Right-to-work Unions Wisconsin