Despite Americans rallying for more unions, membership rates continue to decline

It’s a different environment for unions now.
It’s a different environment for unions now.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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For much of 2019, headlines signified a labor resurgence, particularly among white-collar industries like technology and media. US public support for unions was among the highest levels in 50 years at 64%, according to a 2019 Gallup survey.

Despite the overall support for the cause, the anecdotal evidence has not shown up in the data.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’s latest available data on annual union membership, released on Jan. 22, shows that 10.3% of American workers were in unions, down from 10.5% in 2018. For context, in 1983, the first year for which the bureau started collecting the data, the union membership rate was about 20% with 17.7 million union workers.

In 2019, union membership in both the public and private sectors was down. In the private sector, 6.2% of the workforce, or 7.5 million workers, belonged to a union, compared to 6.4% the year before. The public sector saw a slight decrease from 33.9% to 33.6%.  Some of the highest unionization rates were in education, where affiliation held steady at 33.1%.

The overall decline in union membership is due in part to the changing job landscape. Service and healthcare jobs are some of the fastest-growing, but their unionization rates have not increased apace. The manufacturing sector, which historically has made up the majority of unions, has been on the decline for decades. In addition, about half of US states have “right to work” laws, where workers in unionized workplaces do not need to join a union or pay dues, but may still benefit from its protections and regulations.

More broadly, in a tight US labor market, wage growth has been increasing, particularly for the lowest-paid workers, due in part to a nationwide movement of rising minimum wages.

It’s not all losses and declines, though. With the recent wave of employees at digital media companies such as Quartz, BuzzFeed News, Wirecutter, and others unionizing, the information sector, which includes journalists and screenwriters, saw an uptick in union affiliation from 9.6% to 10.3%.