News Story

Unions Continued Steady Membership Decline In 2018

Percentage of total workforce in unions down from 10.7 to 10.5; government unions down a bit more

Union membership as a percentage of the workforce declined both in Michigan and nationally in 2018, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, issued on Friday, Jan. 18.

The national decline — to 10.5 percent from 10.7 percent in 2017 — continues a decades-long trend that has seen overall unionization cut nearly in half over 35 years.

Union membership rates remained higher in historically labor-friendly Michigan in 2018, at 14.5 percent, the report said. But last year’s number was essentially unchanged from 2016 (14.4 percent), and it nearly wiped out all of the gains of 2017 (when the number was 15.6 percent) that advocates for organized labor had hoped signaled a reversal of the long-term trend.

Unionization among public sector workers nationally remains much higher than the private sector, at 33.9 percent, the report said. But that number, too, was below the 2017 level (34.4 percent).

Public sector unions took a blow in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Janus v. AFSCME, that public employees could no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment. The impact of that decision on overall union membership is, as yet, uncertain.

Jason Taylor, an economic historian at Central Michigan University, said he believes it is still too early to separate the effect of Janus, or even Michigan’s 2013 adoption of right-to-work (which wiped out compulsory union fees for most state, local and public school employees) from other factors. Year-to-year changes can be mere statistical “noise,” he said.

“Many of the new jobs being created in the economy today are nonunion,” he said, “but if there is a recession and a lot of job losses, union workers may be the ones who hold onto employment and the numbers will go back up.”

Nonetheless, the long-term decline in union membership in the U.S. since the middle of the 20th century is undeniable, Taylor said, and due in part to changes in the workplace mandated by government and sought by unions themselves. He cited the examples of Social Security, unemployment insurance and workers compensation insurance.

“A lot of these government programs have made union membership less attractive,” he said.

Several major organized labor organizations published their response on the day of the BLS report. They focused on the relatively stable number of total union workers from 2017 to 2018 and did not mention their shrinking percentage of the overall workforce, which grew by about 2.2 million in 2018.

A press release from AFSCME, which describes itself as the nation’s largest public services union, was headlined, “New Union Membership Data Reveal Anti-Worker Assault Is Failing.” It said that membership in public sector unions saw only “a marginal 0.5 percent decline.”

Other voices were less sanguine. A story published on the report by the left-leaning, pro-labor website Splinter carried the headline, “Unions Need to Admit Their Most Important Failure.” The story called declining union membership rates an “existential issue for organized labor,” and said union density “is what actually matters.”

Ignoring labor’s declining presence in the overall workforce “is counter-productive because it conceals the true immensity of the mountain labor has to climb” to restore its ability to contribute to the financial well-being of workers, the story said.