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Economics. Explained.  

Union Membership

 February 3, 2017

Union Membership

Union membership declined considerably from 11.1% in 2015 to 10.7% in 2016.  This is not a new trend.

Union membership has been on a steady decline since 1945 when roughly one-third of employed people belonged to unions.  By 1983 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data, there were 17.7 million union workers which represented 20.1% of the workforce. By 2000, as shown above, that percentage had shrink to 13.4%, and now it stands at 10.7%.

There are a variety of reasons for this decline. Automation is high on the list, as many labor-intensive jobs have been replaced machinery.  The shift in the economy from being manufacturing based to services is another.  Unions have traditionally been strong in manufacturing with larger plants, and weaker in the service industry with much smaller firms.  Indeed, in the mid-1970’s the manufacturing sector represented 25% of the U.S. economy.  Today manufacturing jobs are just 9% of the total.  Also, many traditional union jobs have been shifted overseas to take advantage of lower wages.

More recently union membership is under attack from a number of different states and cities as those governors and mayors have figured out they simply cannot afford to pay for gold-plated benefits packages that the unions successfully negotiated in days gone by.  The movement away from unions started in Indiana in 2012 but spread to Michigan in 2013 and Wisconsin in 2015.  Michigan was a huge blow for union leaders because it is generally regarded as the birthplace of the modern labor movement.  In 2016 West Virginia became another right to work state followed by Kentucky in January of this year.  In all, there are now 28 right-to-work states.

Stephen Slifer


Charleston, SC

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