Union density hits record low

Union density—the share of employed workers belonging to unions—fell to 10.5% in 2018, the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the data in its modern form in 1964, down from 2017’s 10.7%. (See graph below.) After rising 0.1 point in 2017, private sector density fell back to match 2016’s 6.4%, the lowest since stats began in 1929. Republican governors’ war on public sector unions is having a visible effect: just 33.9% of government workers belonged to unions last year, the lowest since 1978, when membership was on an upswing—an effect that is only going to intensify as the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus case, which forbids mandatory payment of union dues, spreads.

union density over time

There’s an old lie that unions are good for white men and no one else. That’s the opposite of the case. As the graph below shows, black women, for example, earn 63% as much per week as white men overall; belonging to a union brings that up to 78%—still a large gap, but a much smaller one. Nonunion Latinas earn 60% as much as white men; a union brings that up to 83%. And, as a team of researchers from the Economic Policy Institute argues, unions can raise the level of nonunion workers if they’re prevalent enough in a geographical area or industrial sector. No wonder employers hate them.

Weekly wage union vs non 2018.png

Union density varies widely by state, as this map shows. They’re strongest in the Northeast and far West, mixed in the Midwest, and weak in the South and interior West.

union density map

Changes in union density also vary widely by state. Since 2000, density is down 3.0 points. It was down in every state (including DC) but three. Losses were small in high-density Massachusetts and low-density Alabama and North Carolina. Density was down hard in states where reactionary governors made war on organized labor—most notably, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, but even Chris Christie in liberal New Jersey. New York, the state with the second-highest union density in the country, 22.3%, saw an above-average loss of 3.2 points.

union density by state

There are signs of life in the labor movement, most recently the spectacular victory by the Los Angeles teachers, following upon the upsurge in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma last spring. And we’ve seen some organizing in the electronic media. These are extremely cheering signs. But we’re going to need a lot more of this if the erosion of working-class living standards is ever going to be reversed.

One Comment on “Union density hits record low

  1. Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater and commented:
    Without democratizing unions and the creation of a unified actual leftwing movement, the recent relatively tiny gains of unionized workers (the majority of whom had to drag their unions into supporting them) are way too little, way too late. For instance, L.A. teachers made it clear a major part of this strike was to save public education from the privatizers/charter school advocates. If the new contract goes through, there is nothing I’ve seen that will stop the privatizers. Also, the majority of the class size agreement offers little to no change. Unfortunately, other recent “wins” from other unions follow this line. In West Virginia, the teachers strike was largely about healthcare costs. Their costs are still going through the roof. Radical (root change) is the only way out. Fundamental change of the world’s economic system. We are nowhere near taking even the first step of that journey. This takes nothing away from the blood, sweat, and tears people are putting into working for change. We have to unify outside these institutions and take over the ones that haven’t been privatized. Teachers can start by democratizing their unions – like they don’t have enough to do already…

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