It’s Labor Day, But Union Officials May Not Be Celebrating

The percentage of workers who are union members is down almost 50 percent since 1983

Labor Day became an official federal holiday in 1894, when workers struggled under workplace conditions that in too many cases were dangerous and unfair. Unions were often bitterly opposed by employers, sometimes with violence and coercion condoned or ignored by agents of the state.

Few today would dispute that unions had a valid purpose in 1894, when standing with a union required courage. But the improved status of workers 123 years later would be unrecognizable to those who were alive when Labor Day was established.

The record of the past few decades suggests that in 2017, fewer workers feel a need for a union to represent them. In the last 33 years, union membership has dropped across the country and in Michigan.

The percentage of American workers who are members of a union has declined by almost 50 percent since 1983, according to data the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing that year.

In 1983, 17.7 million Americans, or 20.1 percent of job-holders, worked in unionized workplaces. By 2016, those numbers had declined to 14.6 million, or 10.7 percent of workers.

Almost half of all union members today are government employees, for whom unionization is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just 6.4 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. belonged to a union in 2016, down from 9.5 percent in 1999. In contrast, 34.4 percent of public sector workers belong to unions.

Michigan has followed the national trend. This state had 963,000 union members, or 21.5 percent of the people who held jobs, in 1999. By 2016, the state had lost 357,000 union members and union membership fell to 606,000, or 14.4 percent of the people working.


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.