In a year when teachers and auto workers mounted lengthy strikes, participation in labor unions in 2019 continued their decades-long decline.
Union membership in the American workforce fell to 10.3% from 10.5% in 2018, according to statistics released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Wednesday.
The continued slide shows how energy and momentum around the labor movement is not translating into equivalent growth for unions, whose membership has fallen sharply as a percentage of the U.S. workforce over the last roughly 40 years. In 1983, unions represented about 1 out of 5 workers, now it’s 1 in 10 workers.
“They’re disappointing numbers for workers and unions,” said Professor Joseph McCartin, the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. “The expansion of the labor market in 2019 didn’t produce a proportional expansion in union members. Unions would have hoped to make gains in the course of the past year and they didn’t.”
The number of total union members — 14.6 million — is relatively unchanged from 2018. But in a robust jobs market, the number of union workers added has not been enough to replace those who retired or left the workforce.
The drop in union representation in the workforce is sobering news for the labor movement, which otherwise saw an eventful year.
Major strikes including grocery workers in the Northeast, teachers in cities like Chicago and Little Rock, Arkansas, and autoworkers around the country attracted public attention and became a crucial stop for 2020 candidates on the campaign trail. The 47,000 General Motors workers who brought the company’s car production to a halt during a six-week strike that culminated with a contract — and concessions from the company — in the fall, marked one of the largest private sector strikes in the last 20 years.
And even non-union workers have taken advantage of the tight labor market to advocate for more workers rights. Employees have circulated petitions around Silicon Valley companies, calling for tech companies to cut ties with immigration enforcement, and gig-economy drivers at Lyft and Uber have rallied for better pay and more rights.
The numbers of workers who participated in large-scale strikes ballooned to 500,000 in 2018, up from 25,000 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Strike participation numbers for 2019 have yet to be released.
But the broader factors that have contributed to union declines over the last few decades appear to still be in play.
“The lack of an increase in union membership points to the fact that there are still so many barriers to organizing,” said Heidi Shierholz, the director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute. “When people try to organize at their workplace there is just a relentless, fierce opposition on the part of employers.”
One reason why union membership may have declined is that 2019 was the first full year since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus case. The Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to allow unions to require collective bargaining fees from public employees — a decision that was seen as a major blow for unions and their budgets.
Local public employees saw a small dip in membership to 39.4 percent in 2019, down from 40.3 in 2018, Shierholz noted. But union membership among state government workers had grown.
Public support for unions appears to be growing. Some 64 percent of people said they approved of unions last year, among the highest numbers the company has collected in the last 50 years, according to Gallop. And nearly half of nonunion workers say they would join a union if given the opportunity to do so — a 40-year high.
“People look at decline of unionization and think that people don’t want unions anymore,” Shierholz said. “But its just demonstrably false.”
The momentum in the labor movement has fostered a political discussion on the left about workers’ rights and strengthening the labor movement.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, wants to give federal workers the right to strike, and ban “at will” employment — which allows companies to fire workers without cause. Another Democratic candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has called for banning the permanent replacement of striking workers and strengthening the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces laws meant to protect unions and organizing in workplaces.
Both of them, along with Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, say they want to undo “right to work” laws that Republicans have championed in states throughout the country that allow workers to opt out of paying union dues.
The International Association of Fire Fighters has seen growth over the years, to 321,000 members last year, up from 220,000 twenty years ago. Harold Schaitberger, the union’s general president, said their success is due to showing their members the benefits the union helped secure for them, including success in collective bargaining.
“There’s a direct connection to what the union does to having tangible effect on their lives,” he said.