The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the total number of union members fell by 400,000 last year, to 14.3 million, even though the nation’s overall employment rose by 2.4 million. The percentage of workers in unions fell to 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, the bureau found in its annual report on union membership. That brought unionization to its lowest level since 1916, when it was 11.2 percent, according to a study by two Rutgers economists, Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin.
Labor specialists cited several reasons for the steep one-year decline in union membership. Among the factors were new laws that rolled back the power of unions in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states, the continued expansion by manufacturers like Boeing and Volkswagen in nonunion states and the growth of sectors like retail and restaurants, where unions have little presence.
“These numbers are very discouraging for labor unions,” said Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It’s a time for unions to stop being clever about excuses for why membership is declining, and it’s time to figure out how to devise appeals to the workers out there.”
Labor unions have boasted of their political successes in helping re-elect President Obama and in helping Democrats pick up seats in Congress.
But the figures announced by the bureau point to grave problems for the future of organized labor. The portion of private sector workers in unions fell to just 6.6 percent last year, from 6.9 percent in 2011, causing some labor specialists to question whether private sector unions were sinking toward irrelevance. Private sector union membership peaked at around 35 percent in the 1950s.
The report showed particular drops in union membership in two groups where unions have long been strong: local government employees and manufacturing workers.
Union membership showed sharp drops in Wisconsin, which passed a law in 2011 curbing the collective bargaining rights of many public employees, and in Indiana, which enacted a right-to-work law last February that may have prompted many workers to drop their union membership.
Such laws prohibit requiring employees at unionized workplaces to pay union dues or fees. The bureau’s report showed that union membership fell by 13 percent last year in Wisconsin and by 18 percent in Indiana — both unusually large numbers for a single year.