Labor Union Membership, Influence Fading

By Heide B. Malhotra, Epoch Times
September 10, 2013 6:18 am Last Updated: September 16, 2013 10:06 am

Membership in labor unions has been on the decline for several years, according to Gallup, a research firm.

In the United States, support for labor unions has decreased in recent decades. This year, 54 percent of Americans support labor unions, down from an all-time high of 75 percent in 1953 and 1957, and below the historical average of 62 percent approval since 1936. 

However, the 2013 approval rate is 8 percent higher than the all-time low of 48 percent reported in 2009.

Moreover, in every year since the survey, more Americans have favored labor unions than were against them. In 2013, 39 percent disprove of labor unions.

Although most Americans are in favor of unions, more than half see a further decline going forward and with it a loss of power. Essentially, 38 percent of those polled prefer unions to be less influential, while 33 percent would like to see just the opposite.

Union Membership in Numbers

Gallup researched sentiment among Americans concerning union membership, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports on the actual membership.

According to the BLS, there were 17.7 million labor union members in 1983, decreasing to 14.8 million by 2011. Membership decline continued in 2012 with unions losing 400,000 members. 

The latest recession is seen as a major contributor to the decline of union membership, states the BLS.

Union membership has always been larger in local, state, and federal governments, than in U.S. industry, because of the number of teachers, police, and firefighters. 

That is, 7.3 million union members worked in the U.S. government sector in 2012, with about two-thirds of those working for local governments. 

Rationalizing the Decline in Union Membership

The decline in union membership began before the latest recession. However, a steeper decline was noted since the economic downturn of the past years.

Labor union watchers and experts agree that there won’t be a significant increase in union membership and influence. 

Reasons for the decline are plentiful, with the American City & Country website stating, “Several factors have affected union membership, including public policy.” 

One of the main reasons is the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which was enacted to curtail the activities and power of labor unions.

Additionally, anti-labor legislation was enacted in 24 states, including Michigan and Indiana, limiting collective bargaining rights. 

Furthermore, laws were passed that cover issues generally fought over by labor unions, including minimum wage and overtime pay, now covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Also, safety conditions were addressed by the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA).

A reduction in the labor force during the latest recession by both government and industry affected union membership. 

Additionally, the export of U.S. manufacturing jobs, as well as technological advances, especially in the automobile, steel, paper, and heavy equipment industries, were instrumental in unions losing members. 

“If we subtract all the non-manufacturing and service jobs (nurses, civil servants, police and firemen, teachers, etc.), there are barely 6 percent of union workers engaged in the manufacture of products. When you lose your base you can’t expect to maintain your membership,” states a 2013 article on the Counterpunch website.

Besides the above, American companies, in this age of Internet and globalization, has to be highly competitive and respond quickly to actions by its competitors.

Barry T. Hirsch, professor at Georgia State University said in a 2011 article that unionized companies “often fare poorly in highly dynamic and competitive economic settings.” 

A main reason for doing poorly is that productivity has not increased proportionately to the increase in salaries and benefits by unionized workers. 

Hirsch concludes, “Under any likely scenario, union governance in the private sector will remain a minority model largely restricted to a few sectors of the economy.” 

Strikes Reduced to a Trickle

Labor unions are striking companies to show that they still have some clout despite losing membership. Labor strikes in the past were a key bargaining chip for unions, but according to labor movement experts, they are no longer as effective.

Data on strikes involving a small number of workers is not available, but the BLS reports on strikes when more than 1,000 workers are involved.

During the first six months of 2013, the BLS states that there have been seven large strikes. The largest strike included 18,800 workers, ended after two days and was held by medical professionals against the University of California medical centers. 

The BLS reported 19 strikes a year in 2011 and 2012, with 113,000 and 148,000 workers, respectively, on the picket lines. During the recessionary years of 2009 and 2010, there were 5 and 11 major strikes, respectively. 

Even the number of strikes indicates a weakening of unions, with less than 100 strikes per year between 1982 and 2012, the highest year being 1982 with 96 strikes. Before 1982, there were more than 100 strikes per year, peaking at 470 strikes in 1952. 

It cannot be denied that labor unions were a major contributor to the betterment of conditions for many American workers. But unions have experienced a drain on their memberships, and according to labor experts, may never return to the glory experienced during the last century.