Union density crashes as AFL-CIO dude calls for retiring The Rat

This morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported (Union Membership News Release) that the percentage of U.S. wage and salary workers who were members of unions fell from 11.8% in 2011 to 11.3% in 2012. The total is substantially boosted by public sector workers (who are under heavy attack)—over a third of such workers, 35.9%, are union members (down from 37.0% in 2011), compared with just 6.6% of the private sector (down from 6.9%). In general, the younger the worker, the less likely he or she is to be represented by a union. But being a union member really matters: organized workers earn on average 21% more than nonunion ones (though the comparison is complicated by sectoral and demographic issues).

The share of private sector workers represented by unions is now at a record low since good stats began in 1929. Then, according to Barry Hirsch’s data, 12.4% of private sector workers were unionized in that fateful year, nearly twice as many as were last year. (Hirsch’s spreadsheet is on this data-rich ‎site, featuring his and David Macpherson’s historical work.) Here’s a graph showing the decline (it begins in 1930 so the decade markers are nice round numbers).


At recent rates of decline, private sector union membership won’t hit 0 until around 2201, but unions are on the verge of becoming an insignificant political and economic force, if they aren’t there already. This is very bad news to anyone who wants better politics and a more just economy. How to reverse this decline is a long conversation, but it would be good if some members of the labor establishment would act as if their movement is in crisis.

Not Sean McGarvey, head of the AFL-CIO’s building trades department, however. As it happens, just hours after the BLS released this grim data, McGarvey tweeted this recommendation that construction unions abandon their practice of exhibiting an inflatable rat at nonunion sites:

“Our new value proposition”! As Mike Elk reported, members were not consulted. This too is apparently part of the new value proposition.

Here’s a memory of Scabby, if he is indeed about to disappear.

13 Comments on “Union density crashes as AFL-CIO dude calls for retiring The Rat

  1. Seen McGarvey’s bio? It can be found here:


    Here is an interesting tidbit from it:

    • Co-Chair of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee – a unique partnership between America’s Building Trades Unions and the American Petroleum Institute (API)

    Looking at his full bio, it’s obvious he’s a tool of management.

  2. It’s because the private sectors are so weak that the AFL CIO is being so conciliatory. They have little leverage left in most areas.

    As for “how to reverse the decline”, I figure they’ll eventually figure out some new form of unionism. It’ s what happened last time, when the trades and crafts unions were getting hammered by mass manufacturing. Or we’ll end with a ton more job and wage security disguised as occupational licensing, since the trends seem to be in favor of that.

  3. Look at the ratings of unions in the under-30 set. It’s worse than awful.

    Based on polling, the only group to favor ‘closed shops’ in Michigan are retirees. The age group who supports ‘right to work’ the most – young people.

    Then we need to combine this trend with things like the acceptance of gay marriage, and pot legalization on the west coast.

    Putting it together, I would say that progress on important social issues are part of a libertarian, not progressive, attitude amongst young people.

    On economics, the future looks horrific.

  4. Pingback: Union membership continues to decline « Librarians Association

  5. Chalk up more small victories for the conservative BORG. Once upon a time, Marx called on workers to inscribe, “Abolish the wage system” on their banners. Since the ‘boring from within’/’fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’ crowd have had their way with the labour movement, class consciousness has steadily declined. Message from the conservative BORG, “You WILL be assimilated.” Message from the liberals in charge of the labour movement, “Resistance to the wage system is futile.” Message from Margaret Thatcher: TINA.

    On the issue of public unionisation though, it should be noted that one of the major assaults of our beloved rulers on the working class has been wrapping neo-liberalism around the public sector through the constant Reaganite drumming of ‘get big gov’mint off our backs’ by privatising public services and, by extension, de-unionising the already, severely atomised working class. (NB: public sector union strength)

  6. >”But being a union member really matters: organized workers earn on average 21% more than nonunion one”

    This actually is not good news for union members. Where unions are strongest the difference between total compensation for union and non-union workers is small, because strong unions win universal benefits for everybody, and with strong unions, non-union employers have to provide close to union compensation and working conditions to stay non-union.

  7. The 21% difference is not actually good news for union members. Nations with strong unions tend to have small differences in total compensation between union and non-union members. Both because strong unions fight for universal social benefits that help everybody whether they are union members or not. And in nations with strong unions, non-union employers have to keep total compensation and working conditions close to those of union employers in order to continue fighting off the unions.

  8. Purple–can you link to this poll about right to work support by age?

  9. I’d like to know whether Brother McGarvey will be selling the used rats–and if so, at what price. They are not cheap and we could use them here in MI for protesting the state’s “new value proposition.” @BCTDPrez: inbox me!

  10. I cannot think of one reason why a non-union worker would join a union today. The reasons proffered are so disconnected. “An American tradition/loyalty/pride?” What does that even mean in today’s world? Traditions die because they lack the capacity to evolve. “Bargaining power/higher salary?” No one stays at their jobs for more than a couple years because there are more opportunities, and businesses have shorter life spans. “Grows roots!” No. Young people don’t want homes (overall) because there are no compelling reasons to be locked down. I mean, Seattle for five years, then NYC for a clip, then Austin, maybe France, and on and on – how great is that lifestyle vs. watering a lawn and kicking the cat?

    No one young (overall) wants to live in one place anymore. Hirsch’s graph shows this. And unions do not get that their collapse is self-made.

    “Conservatives are out to get us!” What a riot. It’s not because unions have nothing to offer, is it? Couldn’t possibly be the fault of the weak, unappealing arguments to join unions.

    Look, unions are terrible. They’re not fun. Nor are they interesting. They’re a burden and subtract from modern day living, they do not contribute to it, there’s no value. Worse, unions demonstrate no self-reflection, no adaptability. No apologies for their failures to realign.

    They blame everyone but themselves for their own demise. Mike B.’s comment is indicative of this paranoid disconnect. (Mike, I’m sure you’re a fabulous dude, just nailing the point about self-reflection and responsibility).

    And that rat? Good god. People cross the street to avoid walking by that vile and disgusting side walk block. Why would a young person, who’s never seen or heard of a union before, want to be part of that crowd? Honestly, like why?

    Shaming and bullying are childish anachronisms that young people believe must die.

    Unions are a relic. The chapter is not closing because of “them,” no. It’s because they cannot adapt to a changing world. So, they sit in defensive postures and blame the world like a bitter old man.

    Unions are gross. The arguments for them are gross. Their responses to their critics are gross. And that tail in the Hirsch’s graph is much, much too long.

  11. “Value proposition”? “VALUE PROPOSITION”? From the hard hats, no less. Holy fucking shit.

  12. This is beyond depressing.

    I do have one hopeful bit of news: last year, proposition 32, a scab proposition, went down to defeat in California, and young people here were generally (in my observation, though I haven’t seen polling) in solidarity with the schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, and nurses against it. California law has traditionally been influential in other large states. California’s population is increasingly left-liberal: my father (a fifth-generation Californian–I’m a sixth-generation Californian, and I’m proud of that, because our state did lead on gay rights, marijuana legalization, and other areas where we’re winning, even if it is because of libertarian leanings on other people’s parts), who was a self-conscious centrist in the 80s and 90s, is today as much of a socialist as I am. He probably wouldn’t put it that way, but we spoke this evening and there is little we disagree on in the realm of politics–he’s contemplating writing a letter to the local newspaper denouncing the county sheriff for his anti-government rhetoric. He wants to suggest that the sheriff resign his job.

  13. Also, let’s not wallow in negativity. Let’s look at what has worked in the past.

    In 1933, the Union movement was in bad shape. It bounded back because Labor Secretary Frances Perkins–the only self-avowed socialist to achieve a prominent position in the executive branch, and also FDR’s most trusted adviser–went out of her way to make workers feels that the president wanted them to unionize.

    President Obama appointed a good Labor Secretary in Solis, but she has neglected to do anything like what Perkins did.

    We saw with the Sandy Hook shootings that president Obama is willing to re-evaluate his political positions and try to do good, rather than try to be popular. My question is: what indignity could workers suffer, that would convince him to put some force into the Wagner Act, which is still binding law, though it has been observed, in the last thirty-so years, more in the breech than in the execution.

    These are the avenues of argument that I’ve found persuasive:

    -The victory of modern civilization is its production of a surplus over what people need to survive. All progress has consisted in a greater sharing of this surplus. (This is, by the way, in complete harmony with the teachings of all the great religions, be they Judaic, Christian, Islamic, or Other. I’m not religious myself, but I’m happy to accept people who are as allies–and many of them take this shit seriously!).

    -Shitty jobs at McDonald’s or wherever are shitty! Thanks to the “job creators” for making these jobs available are superfluous. In reality, thanks should go to the workers who do these jobs, without getting even the remuneration to live a decent life, or the status to feel good about themselves. These workers don’t believe in the system, and are easily persuaded that socialism, or social democracy, is a better way.

    -Read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and then tell me you believe in the system as it operates. Just do it. Tell me you believe that our system of rewards and punishments works, or the system of independent planning. I’ve found that business people are often the most willing to acknowledge that central planning is necessary.

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